Many of today’s graduates simply don’t have a good enough grasp on STEM skills and are ill-prepared for technical industries, according to Education Week.

Because of this skill gap, there has been a fundamental shift in the priorities of educators, who have collectively decided that when it comes to preparing students to be successful 21st century workers, STEM skill development is critical.

As one of the most talked about education issues today, placing greater emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula is widely considered to be a key solution to improving American educational performance and competitiveness on the world stage.

stem vs. steamWhile most American educators agree that improving students’ performance in S.T.E.M. skills is a priority, there is a constructive debate taking place between STEM supporters and backers of STEAM curriculums.

STEAM supporters believe an “A” for art should be added to STEM as a major component, while some STEM proponents believe focusing too much on art would detract from the overall mission of STEM education.

While they differ in philosophy, both STEAM and STEM programs have the same basic goal—to improve an education system and for the better. So then, why are some STEM supporters critical of the acronym “STEAM”? Or are they simply splitting hairs?

In this blog, we will look into both sides of the debate so you can draw your own conclusion about whether or not STEM programs would benefit from adding the arts.


One of the main goals of STEM education is to break down artificial academic barriers created between the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines that undermine student performance.

With more developed STEM skills, it can be less challenging for students to make connections and see relationships between subjects. STEAM proponents would agree that the goal of breaking down these false academic barriers is a noble one, however, they still believe that one false barrier still remains–the barrier between STEM and the arts.

In their eyes, art gives new language to science by sparking curiosity, experimentation, and the desire to discover the unknown in students. This is especially true for students who do not excel at STEM or think they are bad at math and science.

A logic based curriculum, STEM programs are based on skills generally focused on by the left half of the brain. Art, however, is the responsibility of the right side of the brain, which fosters and supports creativity, an essential component of innovation. defines STEAM education as science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, all based in mathematical elements. The “A” in STEAM is meant to be a broad term, representing not only the fine arts, but also liberal arts, language arts, social studies, music and physical arts.

Contrary to what some believe, adding the arts the STEM education doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing time spent on STEM subjects for more time spent on art. Rather, advocates argue it’s more about integrating creative thinking into STEM projects and stimulating students’ scientific creativity and imagination through the arts.

Monica Fuglei, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska and pro-STEAM advocate, used Apple products as an example of this type of artistic scientific curiosity in an article she wrote for Teen Life:

The sleek design and functionality of Apple products are not just about electrical engineering, but about psychology, sociology, design and awareness of art. Further, the discomfort associated with true scientific inquiry is enhanced when students understand inquiry as a fundamental quality of human nature. The arts remind us, through literature, music, or visual arts, that meaning often comes from a perpetual searching.

Despite this, many educators and administrators still don’t support or see value in adding the arts to STEM, partly because they believe that STEM lessons naturally involve art (product design), language arts (communication) and history (laying the groundwork for an engineering lesson).

Gary S. May, the Dean of Georgia Tech’s college of Engineering argues that adding the arts to STEM could distract students from the underlying strategy of STEM—to prepare students for engineering, technology and science professions.

“A recent survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still have that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM,” wrote May in a recent blog post on Inside Higher Ed. “Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy in the next 5 years.”

Educators like May ask the question: if the focus of STEM is to develop rigorous math and science skills through engineering, then how can you focus on other subjects (like art) without taking away from STEM’s overall mission?


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Creating Supportive Learning Environments for 21st Century Students

Regardless of what side of the debate you side with, most would agree that for students to be truly successful 21st century citizens, they need a well-rounded and inspiring education. Curriculum is just one of multiple factors that go into that.

Another important factor is classroom environment and design which, according to research, have a considerable effect on the learning process. With or without the arts, STEM programs require hands-on-friendly classroom environments, multi-purpose furniture and overall, flexible designs to be truly successful in their commitment to project-based collaborative learning.

The ideal STEM (or STEAM) friendly environment is modular, featuring adaptable and mobile desks, seating, and lots of technology so students can alter the classroom to suit any learning scenario and instantly connect to online resources and power outlets.

Because STEM students stand, sit on stools, roll around on chairs and use furniture in other creative ways, classroom furnishings should have wheels to allow for unrestricted movement. However, keep in mind, there’s no definitively right or wrong way to design a STEM space.

Desks and tables are typically non-rectangular, which allows them to be arranged and rearranged so that students can work in large groups, small groups or individually if need be. Another consideration is storage. It’s essential to have a consistent, durable and safe place to store computers, project materials and other tools while students and teachers are away from the classroom.

If you want to learn more about the relationship between STEM and classroom design, please check out our blog posts at Smith Files.


Works Cited
“STEM vs. STEAM What’s Better?”, by Teach Hub  website.
“STEAM FAQ,” by STEAM Edu website.
“STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong?” website.
“STEAM Fields” by Wikipedia website.
“STEM to STEAM: Resource Roundup” by Edutopia website.
“STEM, not STEAM” by Gary S. May. Inside Higher ED. March 30 2015. Website.