The great debate: STEM versus STEAM

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) based learning has taken both the Australian and global education sectors by storm. Designed to combat a technological skills shortage, STEM seeks to provide future generations of employees with digital literacy and multidisciplinary knowledge for a career in the modern, ever-evolving workforce.

Expanding STEM to STEAM has been proposed by educators and pundits, who believe that an ‘A’ should be added to promote arts and the humanities as important pillars of interdisciplinary education. As expected, debate has arisen in regard to this issue – many contend that adding an ‘A’ is unnecessary as innovative thinking is already implicit when discussing STEM, while others believe that well-rounded education cannot be achieved until the arts and humanities are recognised. Let’s further unpack the STEM vs STEAM debate to analyse their similarities and differences.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)

STEM entails the scientific and mathematical concepts of primary and secondary education. Focusing on how these four disciplines interact and integrate with one another, STEM-based learning seeks to equip students with interdisciplinary skills and knowledge required in the modern world.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics)

You could argue that STEAM is an expansion of STEM through its acknowledgement of the arts as a key cog of interdisciplinary learning. Defining the arts as language, social sciences and humanities, STEAM promotes the importance of creative thinking when approaching STEM projects. By incorporating an ‘A’ and thus the arts into STEM, proponents argue that it creates a well-rounded reflection of contemporary curriculum.

How are they the same?

It may appear obvious, but parallels run between STEM and STEAM through their mutual promotion of science-based learning. Both approaches signify the importance of teaching science, maths, engineering and technology in the education system to not only fill a progressive demand for jobs in these sectors, but to also prepare students for an increasingly digitised world.

What’s the difference?

While the differences between STEM and STEAM are pretty marginal, the main disparity lies in their acknowledgement of arts-based learning. STEM heavily promotes scientific and mathematic concepts while STEAM approaches seek to combine art and science

The STEM versus STEAM debate will no doubt continue as experts contend that students with well-developed hard and soft skills across multiple areas of expertise are essential to the modern working world. This quote from Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University, perhaps best sums up this whole discussion: ‘everyone deserves to learn about the arts and humanities just as much as they deserve to learn about maths and the sciences’.

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