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The Benefits of STEAM Learning in K-12 Education

One of our previous blog posts outlined what a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education was, how it differed from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and how exactly STEAM plays a part in the real-world.

While STEAM may sound like an exciting foray into including cross-curricular subject matter in a way that’s meaningful to students, it’s not without pushback from educators, administrators and parents who may still not understand it.

A recent study by Pew Research found that only 29% of Americans rated the US’ K-12 STEM education program as above average or the best in the world.

Yet, with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education on the rise as a teaching tool, it’s important for educators to understand what incredible good can come out of a STEAM education.

STEAM produces a whole host of benefits, such as developing soft skills (creativity, problem-solving, collaboration), increasing engagement and motivation, and personalizing the learning experience.

What’s even more powerful about STEAM is that each of these benefits work together to give students one of the biggest benefits of all: preparing them for the future workforce.

Table of Contents:

STEAM and Soft Skills

For many students, soft skill development isn’t at the top of their list as something to focus on in school. Completing homework and getting good grades is the crux of graduating throughout the school system or ultimately moving on to college

“Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.”

Wikipedia

However, soft skills are pertinent, not only to students’ academic careers while in school, but also to ensuring they are successful in the future workforce later in life.

Soft skills have become so important that the US Department of Labor has even created curriculum around them, such as “Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success”. The curriculum highlights six critical skills that students should master prior to graduating to be successful in their future job. While these six skills are just the tip of the iceberg of what educators can help students develop in the classroom, STEAM can help bring out even more through activities, products and social interactions.

Technology Literacy

In a study conducted by Learning.com from 2012 to 2017, 75% of fifth and eighth graders were found to be lacking in technology literacy. This identifies a critical issue for students who will be required to utilize more and more technology and skill sets in the working world. STEAM pushes students to incorporate elements of technology, computer programming, and engineering into classwork and projects. For educators, there are a number of high-quality STEAM kits and supplemental curriculum solutions that incorporate technology to give students the opportunity to truly dive into exploring complex coding, engineering and technological tasks. What separates a good STEAM solution from a great STEAM solution is one that can give students real-world applications in their work. This not only prepares them for the future working world, but helps them understand why the task matters in the grand scheme of things.

Computational Thinking Skills

Similar to technology literacy, computational thinking skills are an excellent on-ramp for students to begin thinking about coding before they dive into text-based or visual-based applications. But computational thinking skills can also be used to help dissect problems and look objectively for solutions. Computational thinking skills are defined as the process used to formulate a problem and express the solution in a way a computer can understand and implement. Certain STEAM kit products are designed with computational thinking skills in mind from the start, preparing students for a future in coding or for a better way to diagnose issues while trying to solve problems, particularly in math, science and engineering.

Critical Thinking

One of the best parts about STEAM is that educators are not confined when it comes to the curriculum. STEAM activities can be completed in lessons or administered as projects. STEAM also gives students a cross-curricular toolset at their disposal, as they have access to science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. This gives students the ability to think critically about how they would solve a particular problem. In many instances, some problems are solved by using an approach that unifies two subject areas at once. This is unique to STEAM, as traditional classroom work has always segmented curriculum to that given timeblock and textbook.

Collaboration On Tasks and Projects

A recent 2017 study by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Pearson found that students who collaborated on ideas to solve a problem identified many more ways to solve the problem versus when the first idea came from the teacher. STEAM is not a single player sport. Most of the activities conducted in the classroom require pairs or groups and require students to work together to solve complex, real-world problems. STEAM also gives students creative autonomy to solve problems with the educator as a guide and the curriculum as a resource. With STEAM, there can be many ways to solve a problem, but it’s up to the students to come together and agree upon the best way to solve it. This is an excellent way to foster collaboration in the classroom and challenge students to work together.

Communication On Tasks or Projects

Similar to collaboration, communication on tasks or projects is critical both in the classroom and into the working world. Yet another study in 2015 by Pew Research highlighted the importance of communication, as a national sample of adults selected communication as the most important skill for students to ‘get ahead in the world today’. Interestingly enough, the 2017 study by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Pearson defined collaboration as communicating with others, resolving conflicts, and managing tasks. STEAM activities give students the opportunity to practice these communication skills face-to-face with one another in a safe environment. Most STEAM activities are not pass or fail, so there is no risk in figuring out a solution and working together with one another to figure out the best solution. With practice, communication and collaboration can go hand-in-hand.

Leadership

Leadership is an important quality to foster in students, particularly those who will need to go into the future working world. While some students naturally gravitate towards a leadership role in groups, others might not and tend to work in isolation, sometimes unaware of their strength in a subject area relative to their peers. With STEAM, because it’s cross-curricular and fosters a safe environment for communication and collaboration, students can think of creative ways to bring in more subjects that they are passionate about, may be more of a subject matter expert on and feel more comfortable speaking up to take the lead. Additionally, with STEAM, there can often be a role reversal. Many students who are often the quietest may find that the subject matter they care about the most is represented in these projects and this type of learning style, so they feel more confident speaking up and contributing.

Social Skills

Developing social skills are critical to a student's development, both as a child and into adulthood. Another study conducted by “Ready to Lead,” a report for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that students who received instruction with social-emotional learning built into the curriculum scored 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive the instruction. This is an incredibly large difference and goes to show the power of being able to understand, empathize and communicate with others. Social skills include relaying interests and values to others, practicing active listening and showing respect to one another. With STEAM, particularly when working in diverse groups with complex, cross-curricular challenges where everyone may want to voice an opinion or interest, this challenges students to work on every element of their social emotional learning. As an educator, you have a birds-eye view of how your student groups communicate with one another, allowing for early intervention when things get complicated.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is an important skill for students, as it recognizes that both the classroom and future working world are full of diverse people that students will need to interact with. Cultural competence refers to students communicating with people who may have cultural differences that are different than their own and allowing for an open, inviting dialogue to understand the differences. One of the most unique aspects of STEAM is that it can be applied in so many diverse ways to the classroom. While many of the curricular lessons or projects may have a technological focus, students have an opportunity to showcase ideas that can solve real-world problems that face our cultures today. Real-world problems are the distinction here: textbooks and linear lectures often give a snapshot in time of the state of current events or aspects to a problem. With STEAM, students are often encouraged to research solutions to a problem that are inhibiting a population of the world and to find a solution. This gives students an opportunity to exercise cultural competence and work together on solving a problem that may not affect them, but is affecting another demographic.

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STEAM and Student Engagement

Here’s a troubling statistic: a recent report by Gallup stated that with each school year, students become less engaged. Elementary school students start off very engaged with school, but by highschool, students have lost most of their motivation and engagement.

This is critical for educators, because engagement contributes to a variety of factors to success, both in the classroom and for future workplace success.

The study highlighted that interestingly enough, many of the disengaged students were not troublemakers or simply lazy. Most disengaged students were actually those who have high entrepreneurial talent and stated that they were the future job creators of America.

Another statistic in the study stated that a whopping 45% of students in grades 5 through 12 had aspirations to start their own business someday. This goes to show the creativity, drive and want for curriculum that allows students to apply their ideas to solve problems.

More traditional methods of teaching and learning can often fail students when it comes to engagement and motivation. This is because lectures, worksheets and tests are often one-sided for students and often doesn’t give them the opportunity to actively participate in a way that is meaningful to them.

STEAM as a methodology is not restricted to a certain grade level, and many solutions are meant to help students graduate from concepts learned in elementary to middle school and then continue to build upon them in high school. STEAM is often meant to build computational thinking skills, often young in elementary and middle school, and then gives high school students the ability to start experimenting with more complex coding and engineering challenges.

These projects that students are able to work on give students the exact motivating factor that they may be looking for: the ability to exercise creative control on coming up with a solution using a subject area that interests them or they consider themselves good at.

There are dozens of stories that show that STEAM truly does motivate students, and the benefits of engagement come with it, from increased attendance, to higher scores on homework to full participation in lessons versus traditional methods of instruction.

STEAM and Personalized Learning

One of the final, but arguably most important benefits of STEAM, is the ability to customize the learning experience to each student. Personalized learning is becoming an integral resource in the modern teaching toolkit and is quickly becoming a popular way to teach students in the US. A recent study by the Center for Digital Education reported that personalized learning is the number one educational technology priority in the country, and personalized learning is also considered a top priority by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Personalized learning sets itself apart from traditional teaching models for a variety of reasons:

  • It customizes learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills and interests
  • It works with each student around a custom-developed learning plan around what each student knows and how each student learns best

Personalized learning contributes to a student's self-advocacy and their ability to speak up about what interests them. It prioritizes learning using technology, often at their own pace, but does not replace intervention programs.

The benefits of personalized learning can be monumental for students. In a 2017 study funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that students performed better in personalized learning environments than online learning programs, and one district in the program saw 72% of their students in grades 3 through 8 reach target scores on the ACT Aspire test, up from 28% years prior.

This is great news for STEAM, as STEAM has the ability to be completely molded to a personalized experienceby lesson or project. Because STEAM incorporates so many curricular areas within its wheelhouse, educators have the ability to present students with options for projects and lessons. And with a plethora of lessons, educational technology tools and curriculum available for educators to pick from to challenge students and align to their learning plans, students can almost always find a way to align their interests to something STEAM-related.

However, another study concluded that while certain scores may go up, such as in reading and math, the only statistically significant outcome was in mathematics. This goes to show that personalized learning may still require intervention by educators to make sure students stay on track with their learning plan and accomplish what they need to be prepared for graduating into the working world.

STEAM can also help with intervention in the personalized learning process to help push students towards working on weak spots. STEAM, as mentioned before, is dynamic as a cross-curricular tool and can empower educators when they sense more practice is needed in certain subject areas. Sometimes projects can be presented in a certain way, such as a paper or presentation, if reading or writing becomes a challenge for students and mathematics is a breeze. Or, if it’s the reverse, educators can let students come up with an artistic way to solve a complex mathematical or engineering problem.

There are lots of free STEAM lessons available to spark student interest and inspire educators on how to solve these problems and push the personalized learning movement in a positive direction.


Free Resources for STEAM Education

With a dedicated spot for STEAM in your curriculum, you’re bound to set your students up for success in the future workplace. There are dozens more benefits STEAM can create in the classroom, but success stories with students are some of the most eye-opening ways educators can see STEAM benefiting students.

What’s the biggest benefit you’ve seen with STEAM in the classroom? Comment your story below!

Looking for more resources on all things STEAM? Check out our: