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STEAM vs. STEM Learning K-12: Definitions, Differences, & Best Practices

STEAM vs. STEM Learning K-12: Definitions, Differences, & Best Practices

Students today need to be prepared for the modern-day workforce Standardized testing, sitting quietly in class taking notes, and reciting facts from memory may have their place, but educators have begun to rally behind a new way of teaching that enables students to learn valuable skills. These skills aim to go beyond traditional assessment models, digitized worksheets, and even the scientific approach of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

Many skills taught in the classroom are soft skills, skills that are acquired through interacting with others and working on projects rather than strictly skills-based instruction. You’re probably familiar with 21st century skills and STEM initiatives, both of which promote opportunities for learning soft skills, such as:

  • Computational thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration on tasks and projects
  • Communication on tasks and projects
  • Technology literacy
  • Leadership
  • Social skills

But STEAM takes things a step further. STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics, is an educational movement that is challenging the way we think about traditional teaching and learning. It aims to not only prepare young thinkers for their future, but enables them to become thoughtful, creative collaborators along the way.

In this article we’re covering all things STEAM: what it really means, how you can apply it in your classroom, and the current trends impacting education.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a STEAM Education?
  2. STEAM vs. STEM
  3. STEAM & STEM Teaching Best Practices
  4. Why STEAM Kits & Coding Platforms are Changing Learning

What is a STEAM Education?

If you search for a definition of a STEAM education, it can be hard to find a resource that gives comprehensive guidance and applicable methods. In fact, the Department of Education still uses STEM as the current acronym for the strategic initiative underscoring the best way to learn 21st century skills.

STEAM education is derived from STEM education, and focuses on fostering not only the core subject areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but also the arts. This is a key differentiator from STEM. While STEM seeks to teach pragmatic mathematical, coding, and scientific subject matter, the arts are often overlooked, even though they’re critical in the learning process. When educators think of the arts, they often think of visual arts, but STEAM includes anything from digital design and language arts to music or performing arts. The idea is that many STEM projects require an element of artistic design, communication, and collaboration, and without these elements, projects may not reach their full potential.

The Origins of STEAM

Coined by the Rhode Island School of Design, the university has championed an effort to bring the arts to the national agenda of STEM. RISD’s belief is that we can’t have scientists and programmers without artists and writers, and that these jobs are complementary to one another, should work together, and understand each other.

RISD might be onto something.

STEM jobs alone are growing exponentially. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in computer occupations is projected to increase by 12.5% from 2014 to 2024. This is expected to result in nearly half a million new jobs. Yet another STEM career that is also growing rapidly are web developers, growing at 12.8%. These numbers don’t include engineers, which are projected to add thousands of new jobs every year over the next decade.

This report was originally released in 2017, and the data we’ve seen since has borne out its conclusions, with STEM careers consistently outpacing overall career growth trends.

But each of these careers can’t exist with their required skill sets alone. We take for granted the dozens of applications we use on our smartphones and the programs we use on our computers.

While each of these were engineered and coded by someone in a STEM career, it took someone with an artistic background to design the user interface, the user experience, the branding, and even the marketing that made you aware of the product in the first place.

STEAM makes science, technology, engineering, and math even more inclusive for students, too. When you have a student come to you and tell you that the subject matter doesn’t interest them, or they’ll never apply it because they’re more interested in the arts, that’s when STEAM comes in. Challenging your students to learn to speak in STEM while being fluent artistically will make it much easier for them to find a career.

A few examples of STEAM careers include:

  • Architects
  • Video Game Designers
  • Photographers
  • Graphic Designers
  • Forensic Psychologists
  • Animators
  • Medical and Scientific Illustrators
  • Sound Engineers
  • Scientific and Medical Marketers
  • Scientific and Medical Writers and Editors
  • Sound Designers
  • Product Designers
  • Front End Developers

Although careers are most likely out of mind for students in elementary school, what’s compelling is that STEAM can foster foundational skill sets at an early age, excite students, and help them realize what everyone can achieve.

It’s important to remember that STEAM isn’t just about the core subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. It’s a delicate balance of teaching the core curricular material while giving students the opportunity to develop the soft skills they’ll need to flourish in the future.

teacher and students


STEAM vs. STEM

So you’ve decided that STEAM is a valuable methodology for your classroom. But what about STEM? What about the current initiatives your school or coworkers have undertaken to bring an emphasis to science, technology, and engineering to your schools? Are the arts truly important enough to justify a modification to the way your staff currently teaches? Will this become a debate?

What this boils down to is truly understanding the difference between STEAM and STEM.

STEM is scientific; it favors mathematical and scientific reasoning and inquiry-based learning. STEAM is that as well, plus an additional artistic flavor that supports experimentation, creativity, and exploration.

You might find yourself between two camps, the “pragmatists” and the “creatives” but that need not be. In many ways, STEM and STEAM are working toward the same goals. STEAM is just STEM taken one step further, with additional emphasis given to developing students’ soft skills and marrying the arts and science together.

Earlier in this article, we mentioned the core soft skills that initiatives such as 21st century skills encourage teaching during STEM instruction. STEAM adds to these by challenging students to develop their relationships and to collaborate on projects. This is because of the broader, more artistic nature of STEAM, which promotes creativity, experimentation, and imagination.

This isn’t to say that STEM lacks those things; many STEM educators do an excellent job of supporting their students’ development of soft skills. It’s that STEAM is teaching with the intent to infuse art into the math, science, engineering, and technology from the beginning, to give students a holistic view and amplify their learning.

In a STEAM setting, you’ll notice that soft skills become further adapted. Students will:

  • Connect artistic ideas with STEM and apply them to projects in the world around us.
  • Communicate not only around the lesson materials, but around individual student ideas.
  • Bring creativity and imagination to life through science, math, and technology.
  • Problem-solve and brainstorm experimental approaches when failure is met versus ‘pass and failure’.

A good way to look at STEAM versus STEM is listening to the classroom and evaluating your curriculum, particularly to see if there is an artistic influence.

STEM: “How do we do this?” (pragmatic) STEAM: “Could we do this?” (inspired)

STEM: I did this.” (pass versus failure) STEAM:I made this.(created versus completed)

If you find yourself in a situation where someone asks you why STEAM and whether the arts really need to be included, it should come down to this: STEAM isn’t just about the “A”. It’s the whole package, including all of STEM plus the arts to help infuse creativity and give real-world context to problems or solutions. And that is worthy of inclusion.

Students making kit


STEAM & STEM Teaching Best Practices

Incorporating STEAM into your curriculum, lesson plans, and your students’ regular learning requires a few best practices. To ensure the best success, follow these three best practices: support, excitement, and alignment.

Support

Getting support for STEAM is crucial—both at the school and district level. While classroom-to-classroom implementations are a great start, it can be difficult to convince administrators of results or grow a STEAM program if buy-in doesn’t happen as a whole.

Administrator Support

Talking to your administrators about your understanding, plans, and results using STEAM is an excellent way to start conversations around a STEAM implementation. A well-integrated STEAM program affects many different roles and departments in a school or district. If you’re looking for administrators to reach out to, consider:

  • Principal
  • STEM Coordinator
  • Librarian or Media Specialist
  • Technology Director
  • Instructional Technology Director
  • Instructional Technology Support Staff
  • Curriculum Director
  • Director of Strategy or New Initiatives

These roles are just the tip of the iceberg. Your district may have needs that STEAM can address and people in roles that are aligned with your goals. Who knows—they may already be working on similar projects! Districts can become large enough that communication can be layered and some of the amazing work that’s being done often isn’t easily accessible. Having conversations with people in your organization can connect you.

Educator Support

Another important component of STEAM is making sure your fellow educators have a similar view of its benefits, how it works, and ultimately, a long-term plan to integrate. While some educators may be hesitant or may not understand the difference between STEM and STEAM, educating them on the differences, providing examples, and starting a conversation about what an implementation could look like can yield incredible results.

Every student deserves the benefits of STEAM, and the more of your fellow educators that have bought into the benefits, the more powerful your program will be.

Not sure how to explain STEAM quickly and easily? Feel free to share this article with a colleague!

Excitement

The best part about STEAM is the excitement that can be generated around not only the results, but the type of learning that comes along with it. You’ll quickly notice that traditional pen-and-paper, textbook, or digitized worksheets and quizzes won’t be met with the same enthusiasm from your students and educators that STEAM learning will.

While it’s easy to get caught up in a one-size-fits-all approach for STEAM and students, it’s important to remember that STEAM instruction can be customized for each individual student. That’s the power of the “A” in STEAM—the arts added to the STEM approach make it more inclusive to a variety of different learning styles.

When incorporating STEAM into your lessons and getting students started on projects, help students who aren’t immediately interested in math and science by focusing their attention on the creativity and exploration. Remind them that STEAM encourages connections beyond STEM, and that there are ways to amplify math, science, and engineering through the arts. This holds true for students who are already interested in traditional STEM subjects as well, who can discover new applications of their favorite subjects through a STEAM approach.

Alignment

While incorporating STEAM into your curriculum is exciting, it’s important to begin in small, deliberate, and effective ways. Here are two ways to do this.

Use the Right Curriculum

Using the right curriculum is one of the most important steps you can take to align STEAM to your lessons. If you plan on making your own lessons, try to challenge your students to use the soft skills STEAM offers, while incorporating elements of the arts that amplify their math, science, or engineering learning.

If you plan on using a STEAM curriculum, educators need to heavily vet products from EdTech vendors. Some STEAM vendors stamp their products with “STEAM” when they don’t vary much from STEM. To truly get all the benefits from STEAM, make sure you’ve looked at past student examples from vendors and lesson plans offered, and picture what it would look like for your classroom, school, or district.

Need inspiration for STEAM lessons? Check out SAM Lab’s STEAM lessons that accompany our STEAM kits for the classroom.

Don’t Force the “A” in STEAM

The last piece of the puzzle for implementing STEAM is making sure not to force the “A” in STEAM. The arts are an integral part of a child’s education, but when applied in STEAM, the arts should amplify, not distract or take away from, the original core concepts being taught in math, science, and technology.

This best practice isn’t just to ensure student success, it’s also to prevent backlash from educators who aren’t convinced of the impacts of STEAM vs. STEM. By making sure your use of the arts in your lessons is chosen carefully, you’ll be in a better position to present your case, and to continue teaching with STEAM without interruption.

If you’re struggling on how to make the “A” fit within a lesson, start small, even if it’s in the delivery of how your students model or present their projects.

Examples include:

Acting, plays, or dramatic readings with finished projects to present a scientific, mathematical, or technological idea to an audience.
Using physical elements to artistically amplify an engineered model.
Using digital design skills to apply artistic elements to an engineered project.

These examples not only give students a chance to integrate the arts, but also a chance to interact with one another as they plan their projects from beginning to end.

Implementing STEAM & Measuring Success

The last and final component of STEAM is choosing your implementation model and measuring your success. STEAM requires educators to think creatively when integrating the model into their curriculum, and can become even more challenging when it comes to measuring assessment. We’ve compiled a few tips to get you started.

Choosing Your Implementation Model

Each classroom is different and may require a different approach when implementing STEAM. Variables such as class size, technical setup, and the time available for STEAM lessons can impact your implementation. Each educator should choose the model that best fits the needs of their classroom, school, or district.

Complete Curriculum Model

Many STEAM lessons available today are aligned to NGSS standards. This makes a fully incorporated STEAM science curriculum possible. Because STEAM also covers math and engineering, you might also find alignment for CSTA or other areas taught in Common Core. For example, SAM Labs’ STEAM course includes lessons which align to all three standards, making it possible to use SAM Labs to teach STEAM in a complete curriculum model.

Unit of Study Model

If you can’t easily replace an entire curriculum, a unit of study conducted with students in varying intervals to support engineering design, physical science, life science, earth and space science, and math may be the better option. This gives students the option to work on projects at their own pace and frees up valuable lesson time for educators.

Enrichment Model

Lastly, an enrichment model may suit educators who can partner with external programs or venues, such as after school clubs, makerspaces, or libraries. Many of these places allow for more space and access to technology than the typical classroom can provide.

Ultimately, it’s important for educators to remember that each approach can be customized to their needs, or combined with others to do the job.

Reassessing Your Measures of Assessment

Assessment is still a critical component of teaching for both students and administration. For students, it’s important to make sure they graduate with the knowledge that will adequately prepare them for the working world or higher education.

For schools and districts, it’s often about funding. While some schools receive much of their funding because they’re located in wealthy areas—or in other cases, if they’re located in high-poverty areas—access to grants, other funding, and even stipulations on teacher pay can be tied to assessments. Districts are constantly looking at one another and competing for funds, no matter the dollars allocated by the state each year. Getting high scores district-to-district is always competitive.

Integrating STEAM can get political if administration hasn’t bought in, so making sure you’re set up correctly for assessment is crucial. To make sure you’re prepared, there are two ways to reassess your assessment models:

Making sure your curriculum is aligned to state standards can provide the peace of mind that you’re educating your students with what the state deems important to know upon graduation. These are also concepts that are likely to be tested upon.
If creating your own assessments on STEAM, consider a deeper understanding around validity versus reliability to truly incorporate the correct instruments and intervals of data being collected. By learning about the right way to measure results and how it can be adapted to STEAM, you can measure efficacy and improve your program.

Implementing a STEAM program can sound tedious and challenging, but it’s an exciting journey that can bring incredible results to your classroom, school or district. If you’re curious to learn more and want extra help in your process, reach out to a member of our SAM Labs team who specializes in implementations. We’d love to help you reach your goals.


Why STEAM Kits & Coding Platforms Are Changing Learning

Looking to start implementing STEAM in your classroom? Using STEAM kits, alongside a kid-friendly coding platform and standards-aligned curriculum, is a great way to integrate science, math, engineering, and the arts into one package for your students.

Integrated solutions like this provide a huge advantage over traditional STEM and STEAM digital curriculum because they provide elements that are both physical and digital. With technology use growing in classrooms, and devices like Chromebooks, iPads, and smartphones becoming more accessible, there is huge potential for dynamic instruction that combines the best of both worlds.

Right now, reports have shown that the most downloaded apps for these devices are gamified digital apps and assessment programs. These applications can lead to good outcomes for students, with multiple reports showing that one of the biggest benefits of gamification and game-based learning is real-time feedback for students. Students can approach challenges in levels and receive an instant answer as to whether it was correct.

However, gamification and game-based learning can prove challenging for educators in a classroom setting. If a student asks for help with a specific challenge, it can be complicated for a teacher to understand how a student arrived at that level and what steps they took to get that outcome. It becomes even more complicated for educators who don’t tout themselves as “gamers” or are uncomfortable with the digital experience themselves.

This is where full STEAM solutions like SAM Labs’ really shine. Coding platforms like SAM Studio allow educators to easily compare a student’s work with the handouts included in SAM Labs’ standards-aligned curriculum, allowing them to isolate any areas of confusion and assist the student. The added tactile element of STEAM kits also gives educators a physical connection when intervention is required during their student’s learning process. This can make troubleshooting easier to understand and allow a student to easily explain how they arrived at their solution, instead of trying to recall how they arrived at a particular level in game or simulation.

STEAM kits and coding platforms also give students a safe place to experiment with trial and error while exploring digital and physical computing. There’s no penalty for right or wrong answers. Even better, this element of safety may foster experimentation beyond what your curriculum provides.

This is the true power of STEAM: experimentation and creativity within a safe space because of real-time feedback and no penalty of failure.

Students using SAM Space

Getting Started with STEAM Today

You’ve done your research, have a better understanding of STEAM, and are one step closer to implementation. It’s an exciting journey, but you’re ready to start. Remember—only you can decide the best way to integrate STEAM into your classroom for your students.

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