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The importance of the A in STEAM

Using the term STEAM versus STEM continues to be an ongoing debate among many educators. In his article Jack Cooper, MIT Lead for Southeast Asia, tells us the significance of having the A for STEAM.


By Jack Cooper, MIT Lead for Southeast Asia

It frustrates me, perhaps more than it should, when educators still refer to STEM over STEAM, as if art hasn’t quite earned its place as the A in STEAM. For those of you who are new to the term STEAM, the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and maths-- and there is much debate around the place of A in STEAM. At a recent STEAM event I attended, the hosting educator accidentally let slip a few STEMs in their opening speech, despite the term STEAM being clearly printed on the banner behind the stage. Maybe I should excuse the occasional slip of the tongue, but in some circles the debate still rages on. From this teacher’s perspective, it’s time to move on.

The proponents for STEM over STEAM generally take one of a few basic views:

  • The addition of art takes something away from the other subjects.
  • Art should stand alone and be allowed to exist independently.
  • It forgets the original goal of encouraging students to take on STEM career paths to solve the shortage of workforce in STEM industries.

The problem with these points of view is that they see the shift to STEAM as a radical change in philosophy. It’s not. The addition of the A is recognising something that we simply forgot to include from the beginning.

Science, technology, engineering and maths. What are these without innovation, creativity, imagination? Perhaps looking at problems from an artist’s perspective can inspire new creative solutions. That is not to say that art has exclusive rights to creative thinking or that the other subjects should be soulless and rigid. But in many ways, the STEM subjects have indeed been traditionally taught in a bleak and rigid way. Most adults will attest that high school math was about learning what to do and following the steps. What if math class was instead about imagining what might be possible and then finding a way to realise it, using mathematical principles as a kind of toolkit? The addition of art might just be the special ingredient that reminds us not to think about what can be done, but what might be possible.

I had great fun introducing a recent interdisciplinary unit to students. I told them that in art class, we will be collaborating with another subject for a few weeks and asked them to guess which subject they thought it might be. 
One hopeful student even guessed P.E.
Unsurprisingly, math was the last guess, after each of the other subjects had already been tried in turn. This gave us a platform to discuss some of the great collaborations between mathematics and art like architecture, the golden ratio and fractals, as well as the great artistic mathematicians (or mathematical artists if you prefer) like Da Vinci, Fibonacci and Escher. There is plenty of historical precedence for art being connected to the STEM subjects, it’s not just something we’ve just tacked on in the last few years.

As an educator, my perspective on STEAM comes from what I’ve found to be a key to student engagement in learning: STEAM gives students a license to create just for the fun of it, for the beauty of it, for the love of creating. Without art, a STEM education may have students taking on projects that are too focused on reproducing something specific, with a predetermined outcome that a teacher has deemed important. This puts too much emphasis on success, and teaches students to fear failure. Besides this, it tells students that making is just a means to an end. It’s not. We build and make for the same reasons that we create art-- it’s therapeutic, it’s self-expressive, it gives us purpose. Put simply, we create because we love it. The A reminds us of this and shows us that the creative process has just as much value as the product, if not more. A budding engineer doesn’t build soapbox cars because they believe it will lay the foundations for a sound knowledge of engineering principles that will help them succeed in the industry once they graduate. To a child, building a soapbox car is pure creation. It’s about closing your eyes and dreaming. It’s about making something new that no one has ever made before. It might also be about working with a buddy, bonding and building social skills. In my class, this is what STEAM is all about. Letting the inspiration run through your veins, down to your hands and spill out onto the canvas. That canvas might be a pile of timber, a stack of popsicle sticks, or a computer screen but it’s all art to me.