STEAM represents an educational approach that emphasizes the following fields: science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. STEAM integrates arts, innovation, and design into STEM education, and STEAM activities are cross-disciplinary and project-based. STEAM lessons encourage students to explore the world around them, develop and create innovative solutions to problems, think deeply, work collaboratively, and communicate their results.

What is STEM?

At its most basic, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Alternatively, STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. But STEM education is far more than just sticking those subject titles together. It’s a philosophy of education that embraces teaching skills and subjects in an a way that resembles real life.

How is STEM Education Important? 

The key component of STEM and STEAM is integration. Instead of teaching disciplines in independent subject silos, lessons are well rounded, project and inquiry based, with a focus on interdisciplinary learning. STEM and STEAM align with the way we work and problem solve in our daily lives. Making it an exceptional way of instructing and learning. With STEM we are teaching skills the way they will be used in the workforce, and the real world. Rarely does a job require only one skill set like math. Picture an architect, they use science, math, engineering and technology to do their jobs. The subjects do not work on their own, instead they are woven together in practical and seamless ways allowing the architect to design complex buildings.


STEM and STEAM are not new, they are simply ways of understanding and applying an integrated form of learning that resembles real life. Instead of teaching math as separate from science, they can be taught together in a way that shows how the knowledge from those two fields complement and support each other.

Why add the A in STEAM?

The addition of Arts to STEM to create STEAM is about incorporating creative thinking and applied arts in real situations. Art isn’t just about working in a studio. Art is about discovering and creating ingenious ways of problem solving, integrating principles or presenting information. Picture an architect, they use engineering, math, technology, science and arts to create stunning buildings and structures. Many people feel that adding the A is unnecessary and that the application of creativity and arts is a natural part of STEM, but others like to highlight it. For elementary aged children, in particular, I like to include the A to ensure that facet of learning doesn’t get forgotten in our lessons. Whether you prefer STEM or STEAM the underlying principles and practices are very much the same, it’s about integration of the pillars: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

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Why are we including the "A"

What Art and Engineering Can Learn From Each Other

By Dean Julio M. Ottino


Science and engineering are driven by purpose and ultimate objectives that can be simply encapsulated: Technology is about invention; science is about discovery. Art need not be driven by a purpose, at least not one that can be captured in a compact phrase. Objectives in art are as varied as artists: provoke, incite, irritate, challenge, reframe, shock, nauseate, reveal. Art exists essentially for its own sake, but it is not always self-referential. And it is most clearly not driven by beauty, though beauty can be an outcome. Some say art is about self-expression, a form of human response to the world, an attempt to capture something about it, to put a lens to some thing, creature, or feature of reality, or conversely turn a mirror back on us. One could argue that herein lies its utility.


While the outcomes of art and science are fundamentally different, there are significant benefits to bringing more visual, more artistic thinking into science and engineering. But there is more: The value in the intersection resides in enriching how the other side thinks.

Can this interface work when actually put to the test? Can one put together artists and engineers with loosely defined objectives to find common ground and engage in projects as co-equals?

Yes, but this is something that must be curated, not forced. At Northwestern, we have tested the idea with self-selected groups and loose objectives. In classes that combined engineering students with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and from Northwestern’s Department of Art Theory and Practice, groups developed new ways of visualizing social inequities in Chicago transit, games to facilitate interaction with autistic individuals, and ways to explore the commonality between sounds of laughter and sadness. The most rewarding outcome, however, was the collision of thought processes among team members.


But it isn’t easy to move beyond small, self-selected groups who are often eager to interact. One needs to overcome stereotypes. Both sides have a romantic, almost cartoonish, view of the other. Scientists equate art with creation, beauty and inspiration, and sometimes with struggle; artists equate science and engineering with cold, methodical logic and a singular moment of inspiration when a great discovery is made. Engineers equate art with paintings, photographs, and sculptures, and leave out conceptual art, installations, and much more. Artists equate engineering with technology and not with the human factors and passions that animate it.

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