We live in a world increasingly enhanced by and reliant upon advanced technology. It has a core presence in many areas of our lives and there are few industries not using it in some way. As such, there is a great deal of focus on making certain students understand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.
Yet, there are some educators and STEM professionals who disagree with this largely technical focus. They argue that the acronym is missing a fundamental component in the shape of the arts (A). After all, there is a variety of skills and mindsets an arts education provides students. These can enrich students’ relationships to hard sciences. This has resulted in a movement for teachers to provide a STEAM education rather than STEM.
STEM vs. STEAM: Why Arts are a crucial component
We’re going to dive into a handful of considerations for why art should play an equally active role alongside technical education.
The ability to think differently is a vital component for establishing new ways to solve STEM problems. Yet, so often, technical subjects are very structured, and students are encouraged to think within the confines of solid rules. The art aspect of STEAM provides opportunities for students to cultivate valuable creative thinking in concert with theoretical principles.
Creativity is frequently overlooked in technical fields, but it is an agile trait in those working on STEM projects. It helps spur the curiosity students need to dig deeper and ask important questions about scientific and technical ideas. Artistic and creative activities as part of a STEAM curriculum can also be a more accessible route to understanding difficult-to-grasp STEM concepts.
Most importantly, this helps students see how creativity can play a key role in the success of various technical tasks. This, in turn, gives them valuable future-ready skills for the workplace and in their daily lives. However, to be effective here, educators need to make sure their STEAM lessons take place in a creatively stimulating environment. Students must have a certain amount of freedom to explore and try new things. This will help to strengthen their creative muscles and uncover new ways to use them in the context of STEM activities.
The artistic elements of a STEAM curriculum are often dismissed as intangible or frivolous. But the fact is, artistic skills can form a practical component of technical disciplines. As such, it tends to make a much more robust and holistically beneficial educational experience.
Among the primary practical benefits of the artistic component of STEAM is enhanced communication abilities. The technical aspects of any project require students to present their findings and explain their processes. Arts education can empower them to communicate what they’ve discovered in creative and digestible ways. As they progress toward working life, this empowers them with the skills to communicate complex ideas more engagingly and inclusively to audiences of all knowledge levels.
It’s also worth considering how arts education can have a practical impact on students’ approach to STEM project efficacy both in school and later in the workplace. Indeed, the ability to keep tasks clearly organized using visual aids like maps and labeling can be key to maintaining safety. Arts education in the context of STEM subjects highlights the application of consistency, communication, and eye-catching design in creating organized workspaces that are both more effective and minimize risks.
As with most fields, STEM benefits from a diverse range of contributors. Yet, there is a tendency for technical subjects to be treated as solitary and cerebral pursuits. Incorporating the arts to create a STEAM curriculum can provide greater opportunities to build collaborative abilities and mindsets. Not to mention it creates a more inclusive program for a diverse range of student collaborators who may be more artistically inclined.
The focus on effective and diverse teamwork is vital for students’ future workplace experiences. As the problems facing the commercial landscape become more complex, there is a greater need for effective collaborative problem-solving skills among staff and leadership. This methodology relies on contributors from all levels of an organization with varying specializations working together. When facilitated correctly, it means resources and independent perspectives are shared to create better project outcomes.
By following a STEAM rather than a purely STEM curriculum, students get early exposure to this type of collaborative process. They have opportunities to gain a greater appreciation for how those with artistic capabilities are as valuable to projects as those with tech skills and vice versa. Indeed, these collaborations can encourage students to cultivate more diverse skillsets to make them more agile collaborators.
Read more: Classroom collaboration: Learning together
Imagination and Innovation
STEM subjects have a reputation for being focused on facts. As such, the imaginative component of the arts is often considered to be an opposing element. Yet, there is no scientific, technological, engineering, or mathematical advancement without imagination. Opting for a STEAM curriculum helps to provide the psychological and practical tools to empower students not just to participate in technical fields, but to innovate through them.
This link between imagination and scientific innovation is fundamental. The ability to envisage a different world or conjure solutions that don’t yet exist is essential to progress. Isaac Newton’s development of gravitational theory is a prime example of this. Yes, there are scientific and mathematical principles involved, but his fertile imagination helped him mentally picture the link between an apple falling and the gravitational relationship of celestial bodies.
As such, it is important to utilize the arts component of STEAM education to encourage the use of imagination throughout technical projects. Show students how fantastical thinking supported by technical knowledge can open doors to exciting concepts. Most importantly, avoid the risk of stamping out imaginative exploration due to the perceived supremacy of rational thought. Both are valuable.
It is increasingly clear that an art-enriched STEAM curriculum is preferable to purely technical STEM programs. It aids the cultivation of creative skills in scientific spaces and bolsters students’ collaborative problem-solving abilities. Importantly, it helps them understand how imagination spurs innovation in highly technical fields. Educators will find that bridging the gap between the artistic and scientific can result in a more rounded and more relevant experience for students.
Charlie Fletcher is a writer and former preschool teacher from the lovely “city of trees”, Boise, Idaho. When not writing, she can be found exploring the great outdoors or geeking out over the latest Game of Thrones fan theories.