STEM vs. STEAM: What’s the difference?

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Education is a constantly evolving game. As the world is racing, educators cannot afford to live in the now, but instead must look forward to the future their students will face.

Our world is advancing at lightyear speeds when it comes to science, math, and technology. Look around you and consider where we were technologically speaking only ten years, vs. where we are now. 

In order to keep up, our education system must get creative. One of the philosophies gaining steam is adding an arts component to the STEM educational focus, thus creating the STEM vs. STEAM debate. 

What is STEM? 

STEM is a well-known acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. 

Since the days of the space race, our country has called for its young people to become leaders when it comes to science and technology. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that education councils got involved. The National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics started working with schools to develop curriculums that would better prepare students from grades K-12 for the STEM fields. 

A sense of urgency was added in the early 2000s when statistics began showing that U.S. students trailed behind their foreign peers in these fields. As technology continued to advance, it became apparent that the country would soon need workers that were better prepared in the STEM discipline if we wanted to keep up. 

You can see the effects of the push for increased STEM education everywhere, from the national educational legislation to teachers’ individual classrooms. 

Characteristics of STEM Education

In order to make sure that lessons were meaningful and actually immersing students in STEM components, the American Society for Engineering Education set out a framework for true STEM lessons. 

  1. The lesson context should be motivating, engaging, and real-world. 
  2. Activities must integrate and apply science and mathematics content in a way that is both meaningful and important. 
  3. Teaching methods should be inquiry-based and student-centered. 
  4. Students use the engineering design process to solve challenges. 
  5. Teamwork and communication must be a significant focus. 

Schools use these guidelines to create innovative lessons and a unique environment. An environment where it is safe to fail and try again and where critical and creative thinking is not only encouraged, but expected.

kid learning circuitry


Recently, there has been a push to add an arts component to STEM teaching, moving from STEM to STEAM. 

That “A” letter adds a lot. The arts encompass a little bit of everything, including language arts, performing arts, music arts, and more. 

There have been mixed reactions at the proposal to move from STEM to STEAM, with both sides having strong opinions on what is best for our students and our futures. 

STEM Proponents

The main point of believers in STEM purity stems from the idea that the lessons naturally involve art already. 

Tasks involving product design encouraging students to draw and create. Collaboration and communication are required to work as a team, incorporating language arts. Students need to understand the development and history of inventions to give context to their designs. 

Since the arts are already happening, people argue that it is unnecessary to add them to the focus, believing it would take away from the original intent of focusing on the STEM disciplines. 

Arts Enthusiasts

Art advocates disagree. They argue that adding arts to STEM is a way to develop strong STEM students who think creatively. 

The idea is that students don’t have to choose between thinking analytically or creatively, but should be encouraged to do both.

Several studies have shown that engaging students’ arts strength increases their motivation when it comes to STEM activities. It also improves the probability of success in complicated tasks and challenges. 

What if they’re both right?

Even though they seem to be opposed, both sides of this argument may have the right idea. 

The purists want the focus to remain on the core STEM principles, arguing that there are already enough arts in their approach. 

The STEAMers believe that since arts are already a part of STEM, that adding the recognition may bring more people in and create more robust programs. 

Reaching More People

The arts have also been identified as a way to increase the engagement of demographics that are underrepresented in STEM fields: women and minorities. 

For kids who might be turned off from STEM subjects due to a dislike of numbers, the complications of calculus, or the dull drudge of biology, highlighting the artistic component of lessons can reach out and draw them in. 

If adding art to the STEM curriculum makes content accessible to more students, then the end result is more students with a deep understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematic principals. 

This result is the primary desired outcome of STEM education.

kid learning graphic design

What Art Offers

When parents and teachers are fighting to keep art in schools, adding the “A” into STEM might help people understand the role art plays in our world. 

Art is not only exciting and beautiful, but it also has purpose and function. 

Architecture, for one, is the ultimate marriage of STEM and arts. Building designs must be functional, as well as appealing. The artistry found in the symmetry, form, and function of structures is only a small example of ways that arts infiltrate science and math at every level. 

To function correctly, a prosthetic limb is artfully and intricately designed to perform specific tasks and act as a replacement limb. 

Consider the growing field of computer animation, where you must have both artistic abilities and strong technology fields. Culinary arts are full of chemistry, equations, and mathematics.

The most basic of all children’s toys, wooden blocks, are an incredible example of STEAM exploration. They bring design, geometry, and engineering concepts to our youngest learners, setting them up for a lifetime of creative thinking. 


Adding arts to STEM is all about bringing it to life and sparking connections in our children. 

The first standard of a STEM lesson is that the challenge must be motivating, engaging, and real-world. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning

Continued success in the 21st century relies on preparing students for the future, not the present. Our world needs innovative, creative thinkers who understand the principles of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

Emily is a former language arts teacher, turned professional stylist and freelance writer. She and her husband are high school sweethearts, raising their three boys in the same neighborhood where they grew up. In her free time, Emily enjoys running, baking, and singing along to Broadway soundtracks.