Thorny Issue Memo: STEM vs. STEAM

Education, MSU MAET, STEM


Since the 1990’s, the National Science Foundation has emphasized the need to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and retain students within the STEM pipeline to propel them to related careers. This call to action is a result of an innovation-driven economy where an increasing number of careers will require STEM skills, but where the majority of students in the United States are not proficient in these fields and have fallen behind their peers on international assessments, resulting in employers who lack qualified applicants to fill STEM positions (National Research Council, 2011). Even after decades of efforts with billions of federal funds allocated to STEM programs each year, there still exists ambiguity over how to best teach STEM, including how closely to integrate the fields within instruction (Sanders, 2009).

Some educators have recognized that focusing on core content knowledge and skills is not enough to reach the national goals and propose transforming STEM education to STEAM education with the inclusion of the arts. Since the desire to remain a leader in innovation will require creativity, these skills must be cultivated from an early age, which an education in the arts supports (Daugherty, 2013). Activities in the arts also develop cognitive and visual processing skills required in many fields (Sousa & Pilecki, 2013). Similarities between problem solving techniques in the engineering process and the design process have been seen as a way to enrich both fields (Bequette & Bequette, 2012). Others see inclusion of the arts as allowing for “overzealous application” (Riley, 2013) or opening it up for “me-tooism” from other fields to be lumped together with STEM, diluting the focus (Angier, 2010). Vince Bertram (2014), head of Project Lead the Way, has characterized the debate of STEM vs. STEAM as missing the point, but argues that “STEM is at the core of everything” and encourages a focus on the application of math and science in project-based problem solving, which can be applied to any field.

How would the inclusion of other disciplines such as art contribute to the goals of STEM education without diluting them? How would STEM knowledge and skills benefit other disciplines?


To effectively serve schools with a comprehensive STEM program, the core fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics can not be taught in isolation. I propose using an integrative STEM education approach, described by Sanders (2009) as using a “purposeful design and inquiry” (p.21) pedagogy. This teaching method combines technological design with scientific inquiry which allows students to intentionally arrive at science and mathematics understandings while learning content and skills in technology/engineering.  Rather than limiting the decision to whether art should be included in STEM education, a transdisciplinary approach can be adopted that utilizes ways of thinking from the arts and humanities that have long played a role in advances in science and technology (Root Bernstein & Root Bernstein, 2001). This has precedent, as Singapore and other countries that have ranked highly in STEM education are turning to the arts to drive innovation within their economy (Benner, 2013).  Engineers increasingly rely on creative thought in problem solving (Clough, 2004), but current methods of teaching do not always capture this. Daugherty (2013)  notes a contrast between “reasoned and clear solutions to problems of society” offered by traditional STEM education and the ability to address “uncertainty, ambiguity, and vagueness” (p.13) found in art education, which need to be considered in solving problems of any appreciable difficulty. Integrating with design thinking allows learners to address important considerations such as aesthetics, utility, and human factors, factors often left out of the engineering process (Bequette & Bequette, 2012). Since engineers and designers benefit by working together for real-world solutions, this should be modeled with learners. By using a broad transdisciplinary approach, we can also address the need to clearly communicate engineering and scientific findings or engage in argument based on evidence, which a foundation in liberal arts provides (Jackson-Hayes, 2015). As engineers and scientists increasingly rely on computing to solve problems otherwise seen as intractable, links to computational thinking will benefit not only STEM education, but enrich computer science as well by providing context for student work (Cassel, 2011).


First and foremost, educators and other stakeholders in our museum need to cooperatively develop a vision for effective STEM education, with consideration of the overall goals of the museum and the educational community. A transdisciplinary integrative STEM education model can provide the foundation for our programs and play a key part in this vision. Considerations of our audience, our areas of expertise, and methods of program delivery must be taken into account as we begin to consider how to implement this vision. Educators should identify and adopt a common set of processes, vocabulary, and cognitive skills across disciplines that aid in creative problem solving and determine where other disciplines can add to or benefit from STEM learning.  We must also recognize the many challenges faced in STEM education and seek out partners from higher education, government agencies, and the private sector in order to provide real-world contexts to use in STEM learning, gain expertise in STEM fields we have little experience in, and seek out effective models already in place.

Time and effort must also be spent on developing effective means of assessment. This would include time to familiarize ourselves with changes in the Next Generation Science and Common Core Standards that support STEM learning. Since the engineering design process and scientific inquiry should lead to content area understandings, measurements of gained knowledge would be appropriate, but the assessment should also include evaluation of critical thinking skills, problem solving ability, and use of innovation. We should also consider how programs such as Project Lead the Way and Engineering is Elementary are already serving schools, what appears to be effective and what can be improved on, and what approach will allow us to use our particular strengths to best serve our audience.


Angier, N. (2010, October 4). STEM education has little to do with flowers. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Benner, T. (2013, September 01). Global education lessons: Singapore leads in STEM, now takes on the arts. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

Bequette, J. W., & Bequette, M. B. (2012). A place for art and design education in the STEM conversation. Art Education, 65(2), 40-47.

Bertram, V. (2014, March 26). STEM or STEAM? We’re missing the point. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Cassel, L. N. (2011). Interdisciplinary computing is the answer: now, what was the question?.ACM Inroads, 2(1), 4-6.

Clough, G. W. (2004). The engineer of 2020: Visions of engineering in the new century. National Academy of Engineering, Washington, DC.

Daugherty, M. K. (2013). The prospect of an “A” in STEM education. Journal of STEM Education, 14(2), 10.

Jackson-Hayes, L. (2015, February 18). We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

National Research Council (US). Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K-12 STEM Education. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM education: identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. National Academies Press.

Riley, S. (2013, April 23). STEM education push adding ‘A’ and is picking up STEAM apple iPhone prime example product design part of the art add to science, tech, engineering and math mix. Investor’s Business Daily.

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (2001). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sanders, M. (2009). Stem, stem education, stemmania. The Technology Teacher, 68(4), 20-26.

Sousa, D. A., & Pilecki, T. (2013, February 26). Can STEM really succeed? Need to Know on PBS. Retrieved from


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