As the education world explores strategies to equip students with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to be successful innovators in a 21st century workforce, there has been a growing emphasis on STEAM — the educational discipline that engages students around the subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math.

Many education experts regard STEAM (and its predecessor STEM) as an essential component of 21st century education. Why? According to the U.S. Department of Education, “In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.” Enhancing such skills lies at the heart of STEM and STEAM education.

Additionally, STEM and STEAM graduates “play a vital role in developing meaningful solutions to societal problems, such as the (COVID-19) public health crisis we are currently facing,” says Michael Milligan, CEO and executive director of ABET, a technology and engineering accreditation organization. The STEM Careers Coalition is collaborating on a COVID-19 Response Initiative project, examining how STEM professionals are pivoting their skills in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

What is STEAM?

STEAM is an educational discipline that aims to spark an interest and lifelong love of the arts and sciences in children from an early age. Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math are similar fields of study in that they all involve creative processes and none uses just one method for inquiry and investigation. Teaching relevant, in-demand skills that will prepare students to become innovators in an ever-evolving world is paramount, not only for the future of the students themselves but for the future of the country.

STEAM empowers teachers to employ project-based learning that crosses each of the five disciplines and fosters an inclusive learning environment in which all students are able to engage and contribute. As opposed to traditional models of teaching, educators using the STEAM framework bring the disciplines together, leveraging the synergy between the modeling process and math and science content, for example, in order to blur the boundaries between modeling techniques and scientific/mathematical thinking. Through this holistic approach, students are able to exercise both sides of their brain at once.

The interplay between art and science is highlighted in an article titled “Communicating Science Concepts Through Art: 21st Century Skills in Practice,” by Sandy Buczynski, an associate professor with the University of San Diego’s Master of Education program, and three co-authors.

“There is a dynamic synergy between the visual arts and the natural sciences,” according to the article. “For example, science relies heavily on individuals with visual-art skills to render detailed illustrations, depicting everything from atoms to zebras. Likewise, artists apply analytic, linear and logical thinking to compose and scale their work of art.”

Buczynski and her co-authors write: “These parallel spaces of science and art are pulled toward each other by the education needs of the 21st century.” STEAM education, they contend, is particularly important in the scientific disciplines because, “The next generation of scientists will need to develop their communication skills through both traditional means of writing and speaking, as well as more artistic means including illustrating, animating, videography, cartooning and model building. (See the full article.)

In one real-life example of STEAM in action, an Andover, Mass., high school drew the spotlight for its approach to teaching geometry through the lens of art. “Through a scavenger hunt at a local museum, math and art students come to understand that scale in geometry is the same thing as perspective in art,” Andover High teacher Meghan Michaud said in a U.S. News article.

Beyond the classroom, both scientists and engineers use models — including sketches, diagrams, mathematical relationships, simulations and physical models — to make predictions about the likely behavior of a system. They also collect data to evaluate the predictions and possibly revise the model as a result. However, many engineers are not particularly comfortable with sketching; so connecting them with basic artistic skills through STEAM, and equipping them to better “see” their ideas, can help them become better engineers.

Also considered to be very helpful in preparing secondary students to succeed in higher education, STEAM has gained popularity among educators, parents, administrators, corporations and other institutions.

Why is STEAM so Important?

In today’s world, setting students up for future success means exposing them to these disciplines holistically in order to develop their critical thinking skills.

“Education is under pressure to respond to a changing world,” education writer Jeevan Vasagar asserts in a Financial Times article. “As repetitive tasks are eroded by technology and outsourcing, the ability to solve novel problems has become increasingly vital.”

And the earlier students are exposed to the STEAM disciplines, the better. In a study by Microsoft, 4 in 5 STEM college students (78%) said they decided to study STEM in high school or earlier, and one in five (21%) decided in middle school or earlier. Yet, only 1 in 5 STEM college students feel that their K–12 education prepared them extremely well for their college courses in STEM. There also appears to be a major disparity in the female to male ratio when it comes to those employed in STEM fields. Getting more girls interested in STEAM disciplines is another facet of the movement.

Not only does a STEAM framework teach students how to think critically, problem solve and use creativity, it prepares students to work in fields that are poised for growth. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in STEM and STEAM-related occupations of 8% between now and 2029, compared to 3.4% for non-STEM occupations. It also lists median annual wages of $86,980 for STEM/STEAM jobs, compared to $39,810 for all occupations.

Even for students who don’t choose a career in one of the STEM/STEAM fields, the skills students gain from a STEAM education can be translated into almost any career.

“Educating students in STEM subjects (if taught correctly) prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow,” technology innovator and President of Enterra Solutions Stephen F. DeAngelis says in an article in Wired. “Those subjects teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems — skills that can be used throughout life to help them get through tough times and take advantage of opportunities whenever they appear.”

An important part of this educational approach is that students who are taught under a STEAM framework are not just taught the subject matter but they are taught how to learn, how to ask questions, how to experiment and how to create.

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