STEM or STEAM? What you should know

You’ve already heard of STEM, but have you heard of STEAM? The “A” stands for Art, and has been causing controversy in recent years. While there is no shortage of people pursuing arts, there is a lack of creativity in the way STEM is taught. Amid an ever-growing job gap, encouraging students and professionals to develop their critical thinking and creativity may just be the missing link. This is where switching to STEAM could help.


I’m not talking about the gaming platform, I’m talking about a new take on STEM that adds the “A” of Art. When I say “Art”, I mean the whole package: visual arts, dance, languages, humanities, design, music, and more.

Considering the shortage and all the benefits of working in STEM, such as the higher average pay and future-proof knowledge, it’s no wonder governments and education are trying to promote it too. However, many feel that STEM alone isn’t cutting it. Enter STEAM.

Some background

The idea of STEAM is about inclusion and creativity

In recent years, more and more schools have been adding programming lessons to their curriculum. That was already on top of the many mandatory mathematics, biology, various sciences and other STEM-focused classes. Meanwhile, teachers are pushing the concept of widening STEM to include Art to improve education, and ease more people into STEM.

When schools experience a budget cut, the artistic classes are the first ones to take the hit: music, painting, theatre… What’s more, when looking for higher-level studies, these tend to require considerable calculus or other quantitative skills to be even considered. That happens even when the field of the degree does not relate to a STEM topic at all. Why not the other way around? Seeing mandatory artistic requirements to enter a computer science study wouldn’t look right in today’s standards. But is this fair?

While some still believe that engineering and the likes have nothing to do with art, many see a correlation. By switching to STEAM and encouraging creativity and self-fulfilment, more children and adults alike may take an interest in the more technical professions, and excel at it. The idea of STEAM is about inclusion and creativity.


Just reading up on it, you may be thinking “What is this nonsense”, or “sure, why not”. This is exactly where the controversy comes from. People cannot agree, and both sides have strong arguments.
Let’s first have a look at what people have to say against it.


STEM, STEAM, STREAM… When is it enough?

A 3D animator working with highly technical tools is not considered a STEM position. If there is no coding or mathematics involved, it’s not STEM. A STEM professional would be the person behind the scenes that create said tools. Even when some of these animators or modelers do experience parts of coding when adjusting their creations to different screens, or programs, many argue that the focus is simply “too artistic” to be STEM. However, if STEAM became the norm, a lot of these kind of jobs would be suddenly included in the definition, with no question.

This scenario isn’t an issue on its own, but people like to use STEM to distinguish professions that make the world move forward: engineering wonders, database optimizations, futuristic tools and so on. Including people who majored in art suddenly makes the concept seem ordinary. Whether it’s graphic design or 3D modelling, these areas of arts are extremely competitive and tend to be quickly filled with an overabundance of applicants. This is nothing like most STEM jobs.

Too far apart

Others fear that graduates of history, philosophy or music are too much of a stretch to be associated with STEM. While a data analyst will always be considered a STE(A)M job, what about a sound designer? Does it matter whether they work in concerts or in the video games industry?

Another argument against STEAM is simply: When is it enough? People are asking for STEAM, and others are already asking for STREAM, where the “R” stands for Reading. They argue that literacy is at the core of a well-rounded learning experience and should be included at the same level as STEM is in education and beyond.

Long story short: it causes confusion, and does not help with reducing the shortages that STEM fields experience.


Not only can STEAM be used to motivate people, but also to make them more successful

A strong (STEAM) base

Critical thinking and creativity is a recipe for success. While STEM studies may teach the hard skills, it’s the soft skills that make a difference.
Don’t believe it?
Many of the most successful innovators, that are considered leaders in various STEM fields, hold degrees in STEAM fields:

  • Jack Ma, founder and executive chairperson of Alibaba Group, graduated with a bachelor of arts in English.
  • Kazuo Hirai, former CEO of Sony, graduated with a bachelor in liberal arts.
  • Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, first attended Interlochen Center for the Arts to play the flute and saxophone before diving into computer engineering.
  • Bracken P. Darrell, CEO of Logitech, holds an English degree from Hendrix College in Arkansas, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
  • Susan Wojcicki, Youtube’s CEO, attended Harvard University to study history and literature. She graduated with honors before discovering her interest in technology.
  • Stewart Butterfield, founder of Stack and Flickr, received both a bachelor and a master in philosophy.
  • Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, received a bachelor of fine arts in industrial design.


Inclusion & Education

Art matters, and there’s plenty of studies that prove it

We can use art as an introduction to the other components of STEAM. Not only to motivate people, but also to make them more successful and reduce misconceptions. To this day, many still believe that women don’t belong in STEM. We are often turned down from the idea of pursuing engineering or science early one, yet art has always been more socially accepted for us. If STEAM can be used to bridge the gap, then why shouldn’t we do it? Including more women in STEM through STEAM could be one way to help fill the job gap and reduce discrimination.

Learning arts can enhance standards and other skills

On top of that, art matters, and there are plenty of studies that prove it. For one, using art in teaching STEM topics help students use their imagination, leading them to engage and discover connections between ideas more naturally.

Second, and most importantly, is how learning arts can enhance standards and other skills. Whether it be by learning an instrument, drawing or performing drama, art helps develop organizational skills. Someone versed in various arts is likely better at generating, conceptualizing and refining ideas, as well as presenting them.


Tackling issues with an artistic approach can enhance enthusiasm and bring better solutions, faster

STEAM can and has caused confusion, but I believe it has its place. I think most people understand the role that art plays in STEM. Whether that be creating a logo for your new product or applying industrial design concepts to optimize your creation, art has its merits.

If we think about communication and language arts, this also tremendously help everyone be able to efficiently share their ideas and persuade others. Communication skills are critical in today’s marketplace, even more so in STEM, which tends to gloss over the concept.
What’s more, engineering problems are best solved with a creative mindset. Tackling issues with an artistic approach can enhance enthusiasm and bring better solutions, faster.
These softer skills are often pushed aside, but it’s when people excel in them, that they excel in the rest of STEM.

Perhaps relabelling the concept from STEM to STEAM wouldn’t do anything towards that.
Maybe learning STEM in a STEAM way is the best approach.
Let’s not take art for granted.

Kathleen Gaillot
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