STEM vs. STEAM: Why The “A” Makes a Difference

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects are the focal point of popular integrated learning systems. However, voices are calling out for the “A” in “arts” to turn STEM into STEAM. What does the debate involve, and what do educators and students think about it?

Image via Flickr by Jeff Pioquinto, SJ

The National Math + Science Initiative points out some numbers that highlight STEM’s essential role in the United States’ education system. Their data shows that:

  • By 2018, the United States may be short by as many as three million skilled workers.
  • In 2008, only four percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States were in engineering; 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in China were in engineering.
  • In 2009, only 12 percent of STEM professionals were black or Hispanic.

These and other statistics paved the way for today’s heavy emphasis on STEM subjects in the education system.

Another factor that contributes to the ongoing efforts to promote science and math is that students who may initially take an interest in such courses often change their minds because of external pressures and stereotypes. An article in Forbes says, “This past fall, Stanford University welcomed 474 women to their undergraduate engineering program, about 30 percent of their overall engineering enrollment. At Purdue University, 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded go to women.”

The Forbes article cites the example of one woman who took a computer coding class in high school and was disappointed to find that she was the only girl in the class. When she went to a university, she chose international relations and French as her fields of study.

Does the “A” Really Have a Place?

Given the need for educators to focus on STEM in their integrated learning systems, is it really wise to say that the arts should also take a prominent place? Brian Dunning, a professional writer who focuses on scientific skepticism, says no to STEAM. He says, “The importance of art does not lie in any association with STEM.”

Dunning lists a few reasons for his naysaying. His reasons include:

  • The need for STEM workers far outweighs the need for professional artists.
  • NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other prominent institutions host programs that promote STEM, not STEAM.
  • STEM careers are male-dominated. A focus on STEM rather than STEAM in schools may shift the balance.

The Arts Matter

The practical nature of STEM subjects is clear, but that does not mean that the arts play no role in leading students to successful careers. In July 2014 Edudemic showcased an infographic by the University of Florida that shows how important that it is to recognize that a “half-brain” education — that is, an education that heavily favors either left-brained or right-brained subjects — is not good enough.

The infographic gives examples of prominent personalities who displayed strong characteristics from both sides of the brain. The examples include Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Marissa Mayer. Steve Jobs, while brilliant when it came to technology, also saw things from a creative perspective. He envisioned products and constructed a marketing strategy that appealed to people’s hopes, dreams, and experiences.

The above names represent only a few cases; their experiences don’t prove that STEM should morph into STEAM. However, the University of Florida conducted research that shows that “On average, students who study the arts for 4 years in high school score 98 points higher on the SATs compared to those who study the same for half a year or less” and that “Students who took up music appreciation scored 61 points higher on the verbal section and 42 points higher on the math section.”

Yes, students who study arts tend to perform better academically than those who do not, but there are further reasons why the arts are an important part of an effective education. Arts help students build confidence, develop motor skills, and hone their decision-making and problem-solving skills.

What Educators Think

The huge need for skilled workers in STEM professions is influencing the curriculums of schools, but what do teachers think about adding an arts emphasis into the mix? One professor at the University of New Mexico, Anne Taylor, is a strong advocate of giving arts and architecture a place. Taylor, who manages a program at a local elementary school, says, “We are in the middle of a three-year agreement with the school… We will do an assessment to see if math learning and other subject areas are impacted positively through the program.”

The principal of the school where Taylor’s program is being used wants to help students find their passions, and a well-rounded program like Taylor’s may be the key to doing that.

A school district in Illinois has an ongoing STEM program, and the principal of a middle school in the district says that “More and more, STEM is being embedded into the (core) curriculum… STEM is connected to everything in our society and it’s good for kids to see that.” In keeping with that spirit, the school also has a STEAM program; the students love the 3D printer that helps them take their designs to the next level. reports that some educators feel that STEM is adequate without giving more attention to the arts. After all, STEM programs don’t dismiss art or devalue it. The arts play a natural role in STEM programs and help students tackle design and engineering challenges.

Students Support STEAM

As teachers adjust to new core standards, students may struggle to adapt to new teaching methods. Do schools that already have a stable STEM program really need to integrate arts? Is it worth going through another adjustment period?

An article on reports that at a retreat attended by minority students, the students brainstormed ideas about what could make their STEM training more effective, and one of the suggestions centered on connecting STEM to arts and humanities.

The arts belong in schools, but do they have the right to change STEM to STEAM? Since art programs are already a part of the core curriculum in schools, is the debate really just a matter of words? Time will tell as educators continually adapt their approaches to give the greatest possible benefits to students.


  1. Kimberly Mathiot

    January 22, 2015 at 8:39 am

    People often confuse the addition of the arts in STEM curricula as being a stand alone-program that provides arts instruction as a means of allowing students to express their creativity through visual and performing arts, but not necessarily transfer that creative thinking over to the other content areas. True STEAM arts integration is seamless and embedded in the content, where students may construct fractals and mathematically-precise perspective, use the Golden Mean and the Fibonacci sequence, create unique designs (both very salient for engineering and technology), create musical compositions (very closely related to mathematics in its construct), develop storyboards for designing and coding computer games, study spatial patterns in science and the natural world, and in general, develop their creative thinking process that can be transferred to STEM content. The creative thinking process is, unfortunately, schooled out of younger students in favor of the “core” content areas that are assessed on standardized tests for accountability purposes. Integrating the arts in to STEM utilizes so many 21st century soft skills, and supports multiple hard skills in the STEM program, that to ignore it is to eliminate the one element of innovation, inquiry, and discovery that is essential to being successful in STEM fields. To use an analogy, it is like learning how to ride a bike without the pedals — it simply drives everything else.

    • Leah Levy

      January 22, 2015 at 10:27 am

      Couldn’t agree more, Kimberly. STEM is so much more rich, engaging, and meaningful with the “A,” to the point where it’s not complete without it. How, after all, can anyone in a STEM field be “innovative” without creative thinking? Just as importantly, I’ve found in my work as a writer that my arts background has proven essential in translating big STEM ideas and research for a wider audience — the kind of audience that will actually have an impact in policy making. To view STEM without the A is foolhardy and just wrong.

      We are big fans of creative thinking over here at Edudemic, so keep your eye out for more creativity articles in the near future. And if you ever have an idea you’d like us to cover or you’d like to write yourself, please do pitch us!

  2. christopher Fasipebi

    January 23, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I totally agreed with the points raised. We just started a programme in my home country Nigeria called MAKE Studios Educational Television Workshop. One of the step taking is to raise a generation of students in divergent thinking that learn STEM with inclusion of film-making and digital arts. This is because we realised that there no way life could be more beautiful without art. This speak the original language of science, technology, engineering and maths to the people better. It makes communication and whatever we are making more appealing to the general audience – target market and consumers alike. STEAM is what has been and will continue to be the reason people buy and use. You cannot separate them!

    • Leah Levy

      February 18, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Thanks for telling us about this program, Christopher. Sounds really interesting!

  3. Harold

    February 18, 2015 at 6:09 am

    Sorry, have to vehemently disagree with this premise. As an Engineer (BS and MS degrees), with over 15 years work experience in the field. I can use my own experience to say that STEM education should remain STEM with a little A thrown in on the side. I fear that introducing A into STEM would so water down the rigor that STEM requires, that it will have the very opposite effect of what everyone says it will.

    The whole point of a STEM education is to prepare students in the theoretical underpinnings, and first principles of logic, and rigor in mathematics biology, chemistry, and physics that underlie all of engineering and technology.

    You cannot use music to teach calculus, you do not need to know how to play the piano to understand what a fourier transform is. Mozart and Beethoven were brilliant musicians, but their math skills are debatable. Einstein was a brilliant theoretical physicist, but an indifferent violin player at best. He played the violin not because it made him a better physicist, but as a means to relax.

    If you look at the time between 1940 – 1980, quite possibly the most creative period in US STEM fields, a time when almost all the most important STEM discoveries were made in the US, the people doing these were educated in pure STEM fields.

    These people did not need A in their education to solve the NPN problem in electronics, or create more efficient transistors, better jet engines, larger, safer aircraft, novel medical diagnostic devices and treatments for hitherto incurable diseases, new materials that have made life better for millions (often in ways that we dont even notice anymore!).

    Without having a STEAM education, these STEM geeks were able to take humanity to the moon several times, build submarines to explore the deepest parts of oceans, create cures for diseases, and so much more. Why mess with what has been shown to work so well?

    In a way there is an arrogance about those who want to bastardize STEM into STEAM. This belief that they alone know how to be creative and innovative. Actually, thats quite funny when you compare how many companies in STEM fields are started up by STEM educated people vs people educated in the A’s.

    Have you ever seen a team of engineers tackle a seemingly intractable problem and come up with an “innovative” solution? This may come as news to the A types, but creating innovative solutions is what we STEM types do every day! Its ingrained in our DNAs. The latest, greatest, technologies do not just magically appear out of thin air. That new generation MRI machine did not come about because some artist dreamed it up, it came about because some engineers got together and improved on the old model machine in very creative ways.

    I wonder when was the last time that an engineer thought “Let me draw upon shakespeare or picasso to see how to make the focusing lens on a CT machine more accurate so that the patients gets less x-ray exposure” of “gee I wonder what Mozart has to say about the material i am trying to develop to house the new generation of jet engines.” Or, “would this exo-skeleton I am building to help paraplegics walk, will be so much more efficient if only I knew a little more about art, as opposed to all this engineering knowledge.”

    Proponents of STEAM education are mostly non-STEM types who don’t have have a clue what makes the STEM world really work. They see STEM people as some sort of brain dead automatons who need to be rescued from themselves and be told what good for them. This is pure arrogance.

    Another shock for non-STEM types, everything we STEMs do takes into account the end user, and how our creations will be used. That exo-skeleton example I mentioned above required teams of engineers working with paraplegics, and doctors for years, studying the mechanics of motion in order to make the exo-skeleton as user friendly as technology permits while still keeping costs reasonable.

    STEM to STEAM is nothing more than a cash grab. Billions are being invested in STEM education programs, and of course the arts (you know the people who claim to be the guardians of society) can’t abide the fact that they are being left out, so they will do anything to not just get a piece of the action, but actually take over control of the action. As everyone knows art is what makes physics work!

    • Leah Levy

      February 18, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Thanks for your thoughts, Harold. I was hoping we’d get someone with a deep STEM background commenting, so I’m glad you’re here.

      It is certainly incorrect (and a sad misconception) to say that people who work within STEM aren’t creative; in fact, there are those within STEM who are among the most creative on the planet, and it didn’t take an arts degree to get them there. If there is any analogy to the arts world for this point, it’s just that STEM people are deeply schooled in their own tools of craft and ways of thinking so that they can produce a different kind of art – one that is essential to mankind’s continued progress. And, certainly, there are countless so-called artists who can hardly be called creative. So, I agree with you there.

      In fact, I agree with a lot of your points, and see where you are coming from. However, it is interesting to read the comments of someone who clearly feels a very distinct and overwhelming message from the arts camps; from what I can tell, it seems to me like the message you’re receiving from this article and perhaps from other articles you’ve read elsewhere like it are that STEAM is a big, landmark push in education, at the expense of traditional STEM education.

      I’m sure you have valid reasons for feeling that way, which is why it’s interesting to see a perspective so different than my own (and from that of many teachers I know). As someone with both an arts and a science background, let me offer the opposite perspective: many artists and teachers feel that it is arts education that is constantly under threat. I cannot remember a time when the arts weren’t constantly on the funding chopping block in schools, and that’s all the more so now, as there has been such a big push to increase STEM education in our schools. As a girl growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was constantly pushed into math and science when what I really loved was the arts, and I felt I had to double major in not just an art but also in a science in college in order to prove my worth to the campus and to the world. I’m thankful that I was pushed outside of my initial passions, as the STEM disciplines deepened and broadened my ability to think, and I still work often as an interpreter of STEM subject matters – and I love doing it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t torturous and difficult to accept that it was okay to be more of an artist than a scientist in a society I perceived to be moving so fully towards STEM.

      Now, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of STEM. But I also believe wholeheartedly in the importance of the arts, both on their own (STEM does, as you imply, reflect, encompass, and further our humanity, but so do the arts in their own important way), and in their ability to help us understand STEM subjects both on the micro level (i.e. as stated in the article) and on the macro level (i.e. how we process and understand STEM advances within our larger human frameworks).

      I feel that a lot of your arguments here are more valid at the higher levels – perhaps starting in high school and moving out into the workplace (or sooner if students know what they want to do with their lives and want to attend a specialty middle school). As a former science major, I, too, think it would be ridiculous to stop and integrate a lesson about how a musician used math when someone is on an engineering track, has a limited amount of time, and needs to learn not just the subject matter but also the distinct manner of thinking so important to STEM.

      But can the same really be said to be true for a first grader? It’s called general education for a reason. STEAM allows teachers to give students an important and broad perspective from the get go to help them see the connections between subject matters before they dig into actually becoming an engineer or a mathematician. From a teaching perspective, the “A” also allows for much more creativity in teaching methods, so that teachers can translate concepts for a more generalized audience, some of whom might not come as naturally to STEM concepts as others. And, lastly, it allows space for students who may, in the end, not be drawn to STEM careers to still understand the STEM concepts that so affect their everyday; it also provides them with a lens that might make more sense to them, and validate rather than dismiss their more artistic brains.

      In short, there is definitely a need for more specificity as students get older, but why so soon? What’s more, even when a STEM worker is on the job and needs to focus on STEM thinking, there is enormous benefit in sticking their heads up once in awhile and talking to other people from other disciplines. While innovation often does come from exchange between subject matter experts, sometimes it takes a wildly different perspective, offered in casual conversation, for anyone, STEM, arts, or otherwise, to gain clarity on a problem they have been too zoomed in on. STEAM helps promote that kind of exchange between the disciplines – even if it’s just once every blue moon.

      In general, I have seen so much antipathy between the STEM disciplines and all others, and I don’t really see why that should be. Yes, let’s focus on STEM when it’s time to focus on STEM. Let’s do STEAM when that “A” would be helpful and illuminating. Neither one has to get in the way of the other. Ideally, STEAM would help promote this kind of blended thinking, but it doesn’t have to be blended all the time.

      Thanks again for your comments. Again, I do feel you, and find your perspective, which is so different than mine, to be illuminating and helpful. Hopefully, this comment will help further rather than halt the conversation. Please keep adding your thoughts!

  4. Harold

    March 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Pity you deleted your response, I thought it was quite interesting and would have liked to post some rebuttals and even agreements.

    • Leah Levy

      March 1, 2015 at 8:02 pm

      I have restored it, and am interested to hear your thoughts.

  5. Rachel

    April 14, 2015 at 11:47 am

    “You cannot use music to teach calculus, you do not need to know how to play the piano to understand what a fourier transform is.” No, but for young children, music is a natural way to pique curiosity and integrate mathematics. My daughter at 6 was very interested in learning adding fractions because she would sit down with staff paper and write her own music and try to figure out with a 4/4 time signature how many beats were needed (e.g. I have 3 quarter notes, and an eight note… how much more is needed? ) It also spurred her to look inside the piano and learn about frequency/pitch and how string tension and materials of the soundboard affect this. She even did her science experiment on this.

    I am an electrical engineer and, although not taught through music, having music as perspective allowed me to visualize ways of aligning and synchronizing various electrical signal inputs into semiconductors is similar to laying down instrument tracks. The similarities are remarkable.

    I think the A has a place, especially for young children. It gives greater perspective. It should be taught, though, within the framework of problem solving.

    • Leah Levy

      April 14, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks so much for your perspective, Rachel. Such great insight, and I feel exactly the same way. I think there is also a lot of research confirming music’s advantageous role in developing math learners, no? Thanks again for the comment!