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Shifting Focus to the "A" in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics

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Proponents of the STEAM educational model know that the arts are an indispensable component of a 21st century education. Learn how STEM is making the shift to STEAM and discover careers that fit the STEAM model.


The STEM educational model — a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — dates to the early 60s to spur innovation and make America prosper. This makes sense, science and technology are the chief drivers of our economy after all.

However, recently there's been a push to include a fifth discipline to this model: the arts. Advocates of the STEAM movement argue that the STEM model is too narrow, lacking emphasis on creativity and ingenuity. A STEAM approach takes the core STEM subjects and integrates them through the arts.

What is STEAM?

The term STEAM was invented at the Rhode Island School of Design to reflect the key role art plays in design and science. One early founder, Georgette Yakman, refers to STEAM as "Science and Technology, interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in elements of Mathematics."

The STEAM educational approach favors experiential learning and problem solving, and argues that science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics are intertwined. Students are encouraged to take risks, think critically, and find creative solutions to problems. In the STEAM model, no subject is isolated. Science and technology can be interpreted through the arts and engineering, and include mathematical components. The subjects work in tandem and inspire each other.

Key components of STEAM include:

  • Solving problems through innovation and design
  • An intentional connection between assessments, lesson design and standards
  • A combination of more than one STEAM subject, taught and assessed in tandem
  • Students are encouraged to consider both the beauty and usefulness of art
  • A collaborative, process-based learning environment
  • A focus on real-life, social-emotional connections between disciplines

In short, in a STEAM educational model, the arts are not considered a subject unto itself, but rather an access point to all other subjects, and a lever to innovation.

Why the STEM to STEAM Movement is Gaining Traction

The push for STEM curriculum began in the Sputnik Era; the Russians had just launched a satellite into space and there was an urgency for Americans to become leaders in science, technology, math and engineering, lest we fall behind other nations. This led to the creation of NASA, and a push for more science and technology programming in schools. The acronym STEM was eventually coined by the National Science Foundation in the early 90s, though it was initially referred to by the less memorable acronym SMET. In 2001, with a fancy new acronym, STEM gained popularity.

During the more recent economic uncertainty, leaders and educators have once again called for innovation. Only unlike the previous push for science and technology, two fields of study that transformed our economy over the past century, the new emphasis is on art and design.

Politicians Push for STEAM

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who serves on both the House Education committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology committee, has been a big proponent of the STEAM movement. She says art education is important to industry, and that integrating the arts into STEM subject programs will increase participation in STEM subjects, improve attainment of skills related to STEM subjects, and promote well-rounded education. "Creative thinkers are going to be the next generation of innovators, and arts education really furthers that, and makes sure that we have the next generation of entrepreneurs, of creative thinkers and inventors," Bonamici said.

Bonamici is one of many government officials now emphasizing the crucial role art plays in education. In 2011 Representative James Langevin introduced Resolution 319, which says that adding art and design into federal programs that target Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, encourages innovation and economic growth in the United States. This resolution led to the development of a STEM to STEAM Council responsible for devising an approach to incorporate art and design into federal STEM programs.

A for Accessible

Another reason the STEAM model is gaining steam is the belief that it makes STEM subjects more accessible. Although the United States has historically lead the way in STEM fields, according to the Department of Education in 2016 only 16 percent of high school students claimed to be interested in pursuing a STEM career. Women and minorities are typically underrepresented in STEM careers, especially math and engineering. Proponents of the STEAM model hope that the inclusion of arts will help incrementally change that.

Comparing STEM to STEAM

A STEM educational model is a wonderful start into the exploration of these four areas of study, but the critical process of creativity and innovation is missing. Below is a breakdown of the core principles of STEM vs. STEAM.


  • Focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  • Integration of technology and engineering into science and mathematics curriculum
  • Developing problem-based learning opportunities to develop critical skills


  • Emphasizes the wonder of art and science
  • Encourages the arts to serve as a catalyst for STEM subjects
  • Inspires students to think outside of the box to solve real-world problems
  • Encourages experimentation, collaboration and innovation through core standards

STEAM is an Approach, not a Curriculum

According to Education Closet, a website devoted to arts integration and STEAM, "Arts integration and STEAM are approaches to learning. They are not curriculum, nor are these a set of strategies. Instead, these are research-based shifts which embed both the art and the science of teaching and learning."

The core of the STEAM educational model is inspiration. Some of our greatest thinkers and inventors were inspired by art. "The greatest scientists are artists as well," said Albert Einstein, who was also a pianist and violinist. Steve Jobs was also known to have referred to himself as an artist. Obviously, both men were very knowledgeable, yet knowledge without creativity remains static.

Why is Art Important?

Art is essential to the human spirit in ways that can be hard to qualify. Art makes us think and feel, does not rely on language to be understood, and can convey ideas and emotions that words often can't. Art can be a great translator. Leo Tolstoy called art "the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others."

Here are five reasons the arts are important, in education and life.

  • The arts have the capacity to transform a learning environment, making it a place of discovery.
  • Numerous studies have shown that students involved in the arts score higher on math and reading tests than students without exposure to the arts. In 1997 the United States Department of Education released the results of a multi-year survey of more than 25,000 students: Those students with high arts exposure were 72.5% likely to score in the top two quartiles of 10th grade standardized tests, whereas those with low exposure to arts in school were only 45% likely to score in the top 2 quartiles.
  • Arts education increases community mindedness. The same study by the DOE revealed that those with a high arts exposure in school were 46.6% likely to consider community service important or very important, compared to only 33.9% of the students with low arts exposure.
  • Ideas are what matter, art helps bring ideas to life, and helps people communicate ideas. Being able to communicate ideas is crucial to career success.
  • "Art is not a thing, it is a way." – Elbert Hubbard. Art is a way of knowing, of understanding, of moving, of learning, of communicating. Art is broad, instructive and incredibly useful.

STEAM Careers

Companies that have traditionally looked to large research universities when hiring are now looking for creative workers who have a unique angle, entrepreneurial spirit and problem-solving skills. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici says art education is important to industry. "Creative thinkers are going to be the next generation of innovators, and arts education really furthers that, and makes sure that we have the next generation of entrepreneurs, of creative thinkers and inventors," Bonamici said.

So which careers fall into the STEAM model? Plenty. Below are just a few.

From the Expert

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM and 21st century learning skills. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on best practices for integrating the arts. Susan holds a bachelor's of music degree in music education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a master's of science in education administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter.

How can a STEAM education translate to career success?

STEAM offers an opportunity for students to put the pieces together. We often teach each discipline discreetly, and that's important because we need to have the skills and processes behind each content area to truly be able to use them. The trouble is that we don't provide time to USE them. So when students enter the workforce, they have difficulty creatively solving problems that don't have a scripted solution. This is where STEAM education comes in. NASA estimates that we'll have people on Mars within the next 30 years. What they need to meet that reality are people who can think creatively, persevere when a solution doesn't exist and look at things from a variety of new perspectives. STEAM education provides that kind of training by asking students to use their creative skills and processes within a different context.

Why have the arts been underemphasized in favor of a math and science centered education?

What we measure gets done and gets emphasis. We measure math, science and reading through various testing. As the arts are typically an untested area, they are often the first subjects on the chopping block for schools when budgets get tight. Additionally, the arts can be difficult to measure by their very nature. That doesn't mean they don't have value. It just means that schools often don't have the data to back-up the importance of the arts. It's much easier to do that with math and science.

What do we lose as a society when we don't acknowledge the importance of arts in education?

The arts are an access point for each of us. We communicate, connect and grow in and through the arts. As author Elizabeth Gilbert says, "people were painting on walls before they learned how to feed themselves." So by ignoring the importance of the arts, we're pushing aside these fundamental parts of our humanness. The arts provide us with an avenue to listen and to be heard.

Further Resources

President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 2009-2016 Report to the President

Press release from a briefing on STEAM education where congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici spoke


Site devoted to the STEAM movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design

Education Closet

Learning hub for arts integration and STEAM, founded by Susan Riley, Arts Integration Specialist and Author of STEAM Point

Kennedy Center

Champions of Change: The Impact of Arts on Learning. Published by the Arts Education Partnership, this report presents the results of seven different studies on the influence of arts involvement on learning

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