Is STEAM a Real Thing?

I am skeptical about STEAM. Not the mist that comes from a hot shower, but the catchy acronym coined by those would like to see the arts added to a curriculum focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In fact, I worry both STEM and STEAM are rather hollow, serving as vague aspirations for advocates, rather than robust conceptual frameworks for teaching and learning.

The school day has always been too short to achieve everything we want from our education system. Competition over scarce minutes of instruction is fierce and victory often goes to those subject areas most tied to high stakes testing. Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001, the big winners have been R (reading) and M (math). While schools are required to teach S (science), a shortage of well qualified teachers has left students memorizing facts and formulas more than gaining a deep understanding of key concepts and processes.

The recent focus on STEM emerged around 2006 in the context of concerns over America’s economic future. Leaders urged schools to do more to prepare students for careers in the STEM fields in order for the United States to be competitive in the global economy. Business, political, and scientific interests gathered to advance the cause of STEM in schools. After being named President of Rhode Island School of Design in 2008 John Maeda coined the idea of adding art and design to make STEM become STEAM. Legions of arts education advocates quickly jumped on that bandwagon. Indeed, a “STEAM Caucus” was formed in the Congress in 2013 to advocate for this idea.

My concern is that STEAM reflected the insecurity of the arts education field and the belief that STEM was a more powerful school improvement “train” to jump aboard. STEAM would position the arts at “the big kids’ table,” where arts would then receive more attention, support, and respect. In fact, it has been a one-way partnership. The advocates for STEAM almost all come from the world of the arts and arts education. I have yet to hear any STEM proponents suggest that their efforts would be better served with more arts.

The fact is that the arts, aesthetics, and design have important contributions to make to almost all human endeavors. And with enough consideration, meaningful connections can be made among and between the arts and all other disciplines. But I am not convinced the STEM disciplines are the ideal curricular soul mates for the arts. Are the arts best taught and appreciated in a science lesson, or are they reduced to mere illustration? Once students grasp parallels between fractions and music theory, how do they deepen their understanding of more advanced mathematical or musical ideas?

To be clear, I am not a purist in wanting to keep all content areas separate in schools. In fact, learning is far too fragmented and disjointed. I am all for more inter-disciplinary or thematic teaching. This can occur when students are connected to big ideas worthy of study and exploration from many perspectives. I am just not sold that STEAM provides what students need. It implies we are simply adding an ingredient to an already crowded meal. Instead, we need to step back and reimagine what academic “food” is worth eating at all.

I welcome your feedback and challenges.