STEM Or STEAM Which Will It Take

We’re living in a tech-obsessed world that demands innovation and STEM-literacy more than ever before. But, if we are to properly equip today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow, what should be the focus of education: STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, maths)?

The importance of STEM

Welcome to 2017, where cars park themselves, people listen to colour, lawnmowers can be 3D printed, and objects can be levitated using sound waves.

Of course, you can thank STEM for all of the above. As well as the fact that you are able to access 100 easy dinner recipes on your computer, while FaceTiming your mother on your iPad, and Instagramming cat memes on your phone – all at the same time. And without getting anywhere near your monthly data allowance.

Professor Ian Chubb said it more eloquently in 2013, during his role as Chief Scientist of Australia (2011-2016):

"Our nourishment, our safety, our homes and neighbours, our relationships with family and friends, our health, our jobs, our leisure are all profoundly shaped by technological innovation and the discoveries of science."

- Ian Chubb

Basically, STEM is everywhere and it’s not going anywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the professional scientific and technical services industry is expected to make the second-largest contribution to employment growth in the next five years.

It’s not just about STEM knowledge, it’s about the skills these subjects promote: problem-solving skills, innovative and creative thinking, and digital literacy – precisely the skills employers of the future will hold in high regard. Quite simply, future jobs will demand these skills of their employees.

STEM Or STEAM Classroom Engagement

In response to this pressing demand, both the Australian and US governments vowed to invest in STEM education, committing millions of dollars in 2015 to restore the focus on science in schools. The hope is that we end up with students equipped and ready to take on STEM-based jobs of the future.

However, a recent international report conducted by a UN agency showed that Australia ranked poorly for quality of education – coming in 39th out of 41 countries. The US did not fare much better - coming in at 32. The report looked at the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, maths, and science.

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell if the STEM injection is paying off but, at present, our students are far from excelling in maths, science, and reading, so it’s hard to see how we’re going to answer the call for STEM-literate employees. We could wait it out and see whether our students fare any better over the next few years – perhaps the Australian and US STEM investment efforts will pay off. But is there something we can do now to improve the maths and science literacy of our students?

A case for adding art

One approach could be to add art as a complement to a STEM-based curriculum. Educators at Wiley H. Bates Middle School, in Maryland, USA, began integrating arts into STEM curricula in 2009 in an attempt to provide an engaging context for students. In science classes, for example, students choreograph dances to show their understanding of rotation vs. revolution of planets. In maths classes, they study fractions by examining the composition of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Can paintings. This is a STEAM-based approach to education and it’s quickly gaining…steam…amongst educators worldwide.

Proponents for a STEM-pure curriculum, however, maintain that STEAM will only serve to water down the important and appropriate focus on the sciences and technology. In recent years, jobs requiring STEM skills have grown at about 1.5 times the rate of other jobs – 14 percent compared to 9 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But nearly 44 percent of Australian workplaces that require STEM skills have trouble recruiting qualified employees, according to The Australian Industry Group (AI). Could the STEM-pure advocates be onto something here – is a diluted STEM focus something we simply cannot afford?

STEM Or STEAM Technology

It’s interesting to note that teachers at Wiley H. Bates Middle School tracked all classes using art integration and found substantial improvements in student comprehension and retention. In fact, since incorporating arts into their teaching practice, the school’s percentage of students proficient or advanced in maths has grown four times more than the rest of the state's over the same period. In this case, incorporating arts did not dilute students’ understanding of maths, it enhanced it

The observation made by Wiley H. Bates’ educators is backed by the findings of a 2011 study; that arts integration naturally incorporates various cognitive activities, which are shown to improve long-term memory.

Using arts to engage students and deepen their understanding of science and maths is perhaps enough of an argument to put the focus on STEAM right here, right now. But there’s more to this debate. It has been argued that learning music can help increase spatial intelligence in students – a critical skill in careers like architecture, engineering, maths, and computer science. Additionally, classes in music, visual arts, theatre, and dance as well as art-integrated classes have been shown to have a positive impact on thinking and creativity as well as behavioural and social skills. These are skills defined as ‘the skills for innovation’, or ‘soft skills’.

Employers of the future will be looking for people with a good handle on soft skills, as these are precisely the sorts of skills that technology will never be able to fully replace. Perhaps these skills come up naturally in a STEM classroom, however, they are at the front and centre of arts education.

If employment will always require soft skills as well as critical thinking, problem solving, and digital skills, then there’s no way around it; it’s not enough to focus on STEM alone – education systems will need to gain STEAM.

Make some room STEM - STEAM is here to stay

There is no doubt that students need to be STEM-literate to meet the demands of future jobs, however there is no clear evidence to suggest that education should be based on a STEM-only approach. We cannot say with certainty that a STEM-pure curriculum gives us students who possess a deeper understanding of important concepts, or who are more job-ready. What we have seen, is that arts integration has the potential to engage students with STEM, as well as equip them with indispensable and in-demand soft skills.

Finally, the Australian government has invested, and will continue to invest, millions of dollars in building STEM-focused curricula to increase the number of students taking up STEM higher education courses and careers. Doesn’t it make sense then, to use all the tools available to us to ensure our students are engaged with, and retain, the content and skills that will make them employable?


Related articles

  • Brain Training

    Brain Training

    We talked to Dr Nicola Gates to understand more about brain training.

    Read More
  • Immediate Feedback

    Immediate Feedback

    Explore immediate feedback and how it transforms the e-learning experience.

    Read More
  • Adaptive learning

    Adaptive learning

    How adaptive learning can improve student engagement & concentration.

    Read More
  • How digital are Australian schools?

    How digital are Australian schools?

    How digital are Australian Schools? 700+ teachers surveyed

    Read More