Differences Between STEAM & STEM in Education


The main difference between STEM and STEAM is the integration of the arts in the technical or scientific curriculum. The latter is a more holistic approach.

Students who have good aptitude for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have excellent logical and mathematical skills, but they may lack one key factor for success - their ability to express and communicate their ideas. Hence, there are excellent engineers and scientists who are not good in public communication.

Integrating the arts into the STEM curriculum helps improve students’ creativity, expressiveness, and interpersonal/social skills. The STEAM curriculum prepares students for real-world challenges outside the classroom, and equips them with the skills to be more effective in dealing with both academic and work-related problems.

Is STEM now called STEAM?

In many industrialized countries like the United States, the STEM curriculum has been leveled up to incorporate the arts into the new STEAM curriculum. However, in other countries, while arts and other humanities subjects might be part of the core subjects, they are not fully integrated into a more scientific curriculum.

Although STEM and STEAM curricula are similar from a scientific point of view, there are specific key differences in certain areas. Merely including arts in the core basic subjects doesn’t necessarily make arts fully integrated with the STEM curriculum.

What STEAM brings to the table

According to the National Education Association, four primary skill areas are necessary to cope with the job market demand in the 21st century. These areas are identified as follows:

1. Critical thinking and problem solving

Although a science-oriented curriculum requires technical-level problem solving skills, these are not enough to be responsive to the shifting demands in the workplace. Students must be able to have a stronger and more comprehensive understanding of the different ways technical and non-technical problems should be solved.

2. Communication

Many important and complex scientific concepts are difficult to convey to non-scientifically trained stakeholders. These stakeholders could include investors, managers or top executives, customers, government policymakers, and the general public. The importance of communication can never be overemphasized when it comes to conveying scientific information to an intended audience that has little or no technical knowledge.

3. Collaboration

The pursuit of scientific and technological advanced innovations cannot be done by a lone genius any longer. It requires the collaborative effort of teams, particularly when it comes to complex projects such as the large hadron collider. It is crucial that STEAM students learn the value of teamwork early on.

4. Creativity and innovation

The arts emphasize creativity and innovation, not only in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of functionality. Science invents the technological platforms for expressions while arts use these platforms for creative pursuits such as computer animation and architecture.

While you can, of course, go some way to expanding these skills just by following a STEM curriculum, adding the arts furthers students’ skills in these areas.

When did STEM turn into STEAM?

The STEM curriculum was a response to the lackluster performance of American middle school students in international exams, particularly in science and math. Meanwhile, the curriculum evolved into STEAM as a response to the growing demand in the U.S. economy for technical and science-oriented workers in various fields.

It was first a social movement in the early 2000s led by expert educators and a few policymakers. A number of schools adopted experimental instructions on STEM that integrate the arts. However, the STEAM curriculum was formally mandated in 2015 when then President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA.

Why was the arts added to STEM?

The arts were added to STEM as a way of coping with the demands in the job market and developing students’ life skills, such as require creativity and innovative thinking. Although children use creativity in many ways to solve problems, integrating arts in the basic education will help encourage them to pursue science-related careers.

Why is STEAM important?

STEAM education is important because it prepares students to be better adapted to the rapidly changing landscape of the job market. And it’s no longer sufficient to “just” have technical knowledge and skills - it’s equally important to have creative and softer skills. The workplace is becoming more collaborative and innovative in dealing with a wide range of problems.

According to an estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a projected 8.8% growth is expected in STEM and STEAM related jobs. The annual incomes of those who pursue these careers are higher than those who pursue non-STEM/STEAM jobs at $84,880 and $37,020, respectively.

Are you an educator looking for STEAM resources for middle school, high school or university? Take a look at Arduino Education kits and how they can support your hands-on STEAM lessons.