STEM Vs STEAM: Making Room For The Arts

First, some definitions.  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  STEAM keeps those four but adds the arts to the equation. 

A debate about how we should educate our children has been going on for decades now, and it’s all about the relationship between the arts and sciences. 

STEM Vs STEAM Making Room For The Arts

Some argue that the traditional STEM subject grouping should be turned into STEAM by adding arts, while others think this would be a mistake. 

We’ll cover both sides here so you can get a better understanding of the issue and make the best decision when it comes to educating your own children.

The Importance Of STEM

The importance of giving kids a first-rate education in STEM has long been recognized. 

Scientific literacy is absolutely vital in today’s world and as scientific and technological developments continue to gain pace, it’s imperative that young people are able to understand the world they’re growing up in. 

In particular, they need to be able to find a place in a workforce that’s becoming more and more specialized. 

Whether it’s coding to create new software, chemical engineering to find ways to produce vital materials more efficiently, or physicists creating advanced mathematical models of the subatomic world, the need for STEM is everywhere and is only likely to increase as time goes by.

What Are The Arts?

One of the problems when it comes to discussing STEAM and the arts is that it’s often difficult to decide what we mean when we talk about them. 

Most people will agree that it must include things like drawing and painting but candidates for inclusion under the “arts” banner are more varied than that.  There’s also photography, theatre, poetry, novels, and much, much more. 

In some broader definitions, the arts can also include things like winemaking and architecture.  Since they’re often grouped with the humanities in the modern West, sometimes people include them in discussions about STEAM too. 

However you understand the term, the history of the arts is filled with great names like Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Beethoven.

Why Are The Arts Important?

All known civilizations, past and present, have engaged in the arts in at least one way or another.  Examinations of prehistoric caves have discovered paintings on the walls that are over 45,000 years old, and sculptures around 30,000 years old have been discovered in Germany. 

This art dates from a time long before science, writing, or agriculture.  That alone tells us that the arts are a basic part of our humanity. 

Art in its various forms gives us the opportunity to express ourselves and to learn about our own feelings in a way that’s more personal and intimate than a scientific experiment. 

It also allows complex ideas to be broken down and shown to other people in a way that’s a lot simpler and more direct than just explaining it.

Can STEM And The Arts Complement Each Other?

Can STEM And The Arts Complement Each Other

This is an interesting part of the debate around STEAM.  There are basically three positions here.  

First, there are people on the STEM side of the issue who see the inclusion of arts into STEM as an unnecessary distraction from STEM’s real purpose. 

An argument you might hear from people with this view is that teaching the arts means that there’s less time for teaching mathematics and that learning to paint won’t help students understand geometry.  Some also believe that including art is unnecessary anyway. 

One of the major benefits of incorporating art is that it allows students to develop creative thinking skills.  Some on the STEM side think that STEM education already does this anyway so that the arts element is redundant. 

It could be said that STEM lessons already involve visual art (in the context of product design), language arts (when students have to communicate to work together), and history (by providing context for scientific breakthroughs). 

Well, perhaps, but there might still be a lot of potential to explore these things in more detail that’s being passed up.

Second, there are the people on the arts side of the issue who believe that promoting art for the reason that it’s useful to STEM is missing the point of art and unfairly giving it a role second to STEM. 

While this side would probably agree that learning to think like an artist might be useful for students studying STEM, they would also say that this is not what art is for. 

They might argue that someone like Van Gogh would never have reached his full potential if he’d been focused on designing packaging for products or that Stanley Kubrick would have been wasted if he’d made a career directing adverts. 

Again, perhaps, but even artistic geniuses like Leonardo Da Vinci supported themselves by taking commissions from the wealthy art patrons of the Renaissance.

Finally, there are people who are supporters of STEAM itself – they believe that art can complement STEM very well and that the two belong together in schools. 

Leonardo Da Vinci, who was both one of the greatest artists and greatest engineers of his age, said that we should “study the art of science” and “the science of art”.  STEAM supporters are continuing Da Vinci’s philosophy.

They believe that teaching art alongside the more traditional STEM core will result in better outcomes for students in the STEM subjects.  After all, we don’t know exactly what the employment market will look like ten, twenty or fifty years from now. 

With the future being uncertain, it might be best to give people the skill of thinking outside the box so they can adapt to whatever comes next.  For STEAM advocates, including arts education is the solution. 

However, most will stress that this has to be done in an authentic way.  If it just feels like the arts section is tacked on, then it won’t be beneficial for anybody.

How Can Arts Be Added To STEM In An Authentic Way?

STEAM advocates have come up with several ways they say arts can be made to play a meaningful role in the STEM subjects. 

For example, students could design a product as part of an engineering project and then design a logo for it.  This could involve fairly complex artistic details.  Why should they use these colors or shapes?  Will it be done freehand, or on a computer?  

Computers are actually one of the most obvious and useful places where the arts and sciences naturally meet.  They’re one of the most commonly used examples of modern technology and computer engineering is one of the most popular college majors nowadays. 

At the same time, it’s also clearly relevant to the art world as well.  Video games require coding, sure, but they also need writers to come up with the stories they tell, and graphic designers to create the memorable character models and environments. 

If you’re looking for a symbol of the modern unity and cooperation of arts and technology, you’ll struggle to find one better than the video game.

Another might be explaining a project.  Naturally, this is a real need in STEM.  If you want to move forward with a project, it will usually need somebody’s approval.  Students could have to make presentations to explain their projects. 

To be even more creative, their teacher could tell them that they have to do this in a specific way, such as through a theatrical performance or art project.  Again, there is a similarity with the advertising here, and it’s another example of how the arts can fit into STEM naturally. 

Maybe this is a chance to examine how people can be persuaded by things other than simple rational arguments and how appeals to emotion or insecurities are exploited to convince people to do, believe, and buy things.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Howard Gardner, the developmental psychologist who is famous for developing the theory of multiple intelligences, has said the following about including arts education with science:

I don’t have strong views about whether arts should become a part of STEM or be self-standing. What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.

It seems clear that the debate around STEM and STEAM isn’t going to cool off any time soon.  There are people on various sides whose opinions are quite entrenched, and beyond that, there are plenty of practical questions about what a STEAM curriculum should look like even if we are to make one.

Nevertheless there does seem to be a consensus emerging that the arts can’t be ignored when it comes to educating the next generation. 

Whether STEM is fated to become STEAM or whether the arts and sciences will remain taught separately, we’ll need to make sure that the scientists and engineers of tomorrow are culturally literate and aware of the arts.

Elena Jones
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