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Illustration by Edpuzzle Staff

STEM was born to address the very stark reality that the American educational system is far behind where it should be, especially when it comes to math and science. But where does that leave the arts?

Enter the STEM vs. STEAM debate.

There are strong arguments to be made on both sides, but before we sink our teeth into the pros and cons of each, let’s get some context.

What is STEM?

STEM is a group of four subjects that’s usually implemented as some form of curriculum for K-12 schools. The acronym stands for:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Math

The idea is that by creating a focus on these subjects early on, students will be better prepared for a degree and later a career in STEM-related fields.

STEM magnet schools have sprouted all across the United States, and just searching the hashtag #STEM brings up thousands of tweets, like this one:

Or this STEM project for elementary students:

Or this more complex STEM challenge:

Some of the way schools incorporate STEM include STEM-inspired projects and lessons, elective courses or extracurricular clubs dedicated to STEM, or simply by investing more resources into the STEM core subjects.

But what ignited the STEM fervor and when did it start?

The history of STEM in the U.S.

Back in the ’90s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was referring to the group of subjects as SMET. Thankfully, it was suggested to change the order of the acronym to STEM, and the new (much catchier) name stuck.

Unfortunately, however, this dedication to STEM wasn’t a “keep up the good work” type of initiative, but rather the fix to a serious problem.

Since 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been keeping track of American students’ performance in the areas of math, science and literacy through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

(If all the acronyms are making your head spin, just hang in there a little longer!)

These assessments measure performance for 15-year-old students in the United States, and the results are none too inspiring.

The latest results from the triennial report from 2015 show that the U.S. ranked 40th in math and 25th in science.

Canada, in contrast, placed 10th in math and 7th in science.

Policymakers’ fierce desire to move American students and the U.S. educational system by proxy from the middle of the pack to the top of the leaderboard fanned the flames of the STEM movement, and this desire continues to impact educational policy today.

At the moment, there’s no national policy in place that mandates STEM programs for schools, but many have been created on a state by state level.

In a 2017 report conducted by the ACT standardized testing organization, Iowa, New Jersey and Washington are cited as examples of positive advocates for STEM education.

But where does this all leave us now?

The ACT report also states that in the 10-year span between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs available in the U.S. will increase by 8.9%. That means that schools will have to continue to dedicate their efforts to prepare students for STEM-related college degrees and careers.

In short, STEM is here to stay, or at least for the foreseeable future.

Putting the “A” in STEAM

In the scramble to up our game in the STEM arena, some educators and pedagogy experts have made the critique that STEM leaves something out.

These critics argue that we need to add a letter to STEM, an “A” for art and design to be specific. That’s how STEAM was born.

Proponents of STEAM argue that adding art and design to the equation gives STEM curriculum a more global vision. Think engineering projects that also emphasize look and feel.

An article from Slate on STEAM cited the example of one student at the Boston Arts Academy who designed her own electroluminescent dance costume – the perfect fusion of technology and art.

On the other hand, advocates for keeping STEM a one-vowel acronym believe that incorporating art detracts from STEM’s original purpose.

As the STEM subjects can sometimes be a hard sell (the 2017 ACT report found that only 21% of the high school students met the ACT STEM Benchmark), the incorporation of art means taking away valuable time from the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math.

From a policy perspective, STEM has remained much more popular than STEAM, with President Obama enacting legislation in 2009, 2010 and 2014 to direct more funding and emphasis to STEM education.

One of the main points the legislation tackled was finding teachers to give STEM classes, which has been a huge stumbling block.

At the moment, things don’t seem to be very promising on that front, as less than 1% of students interested in STEM are also interested in pursuing education for a career, according to the ACT report.

Variations on STEM/STEAM

Besides the addition of the letter “A” to create STEAM from STEM, there are a whole host of other variations, including:

  • eSTEM (The “e” stands for environmental.)
  • STEMM (The extra “m” stands for music.)
  • STREM (The “r” stands for robotics.)
  • STREAM (The “r” here stands for reading.)
  • GEMS (This acronym stands for “girls in engineering, math and science.”)

The last in the list is a response to the gender gap in STEM education. According to the ACT report, although women make up half of the American workforce, they represent less than 25% of the STEM careers.

These variations on STEM aside, the most widely discussed alternative to STEM still remains STEAM.

The state of STEM vs. STEAM today

You’re still much more likely to hear schools and districts touting STEM education over STEAM. On the other hand, it’s difficult to complete a STEM project without the use of any art or design.

So, are all of these STEM programs really just STEAM programs in disguise?

The answer is yes and no. Presentation, creativity and design are all intrinsically part of STEM, but to take the next step of relabelling STEM as STEAM indicates a priority shift on the school’s part.

There’s just one thing schools have to ask themselves when choosing between the curriculum and language of STEM vs. STEAM.

Essentially, are art and design seen on the same level of importance as science, technology, engineering and math?

It’s a question schools need to consider, and it’s a debate that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Check out free STEM curriculum on Edpuzzle