STEM as the Goal. STEAM as a Pathway.
Dr. Gary May, Dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, is one of my role models. I’ve learned from him on how to broaden participation in computing, what academic leadership looks like, and how to make sure that education gets its due attention, even at a research-intensive university.
He wrote an essay (linked below) critical of the idea of “STEAM” (Science, Technology, the Arts, and Mathematics). I just recently wrote a blog post saying that STEAM was a good idea (see link here). I’m not convinced that I’m at odds with Gary’s point. I suspect that the single acronym, “STEM” or “STEAM,” has too many assumptions built into it. We probably agree on “STEM,” but may have different interpretations of “STEAM.”
The term “STEM” has come to represent an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in schools. A recent Washington Post article critiques exactly that focus: Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.
From Gary’s essay, I think he reads “STEAM” to mean “We need to integrate Arts into STEM education.” Or maybe, “We need to emphasize Arts as well as STEM in our schools.” Or even, “All STEM majors must also study Art.” Gary argues that STEM is too important to risk diffusing by adding Art into the mix.
That’s not exactly what I mean when I see a value for STEAM. I agree that STEM is the goal. I see STEAM as a pathway.
Media Computation is a form of blending STEM plus Art. I’m teaching computer science by using the manipulation of media at different levels of abstraction (pixels and pictures, samples and sounds, characters and HTML, frames and video) as an inviting entryway into STEM. There are many possible and equally valid pathways into Computing, as one form of STEM. I am saying that my STEAM approach may bring people to STEM who might not otherwise consider it. I do have a lot of evidence that MediaComp has engaged and retained students who didn’t used to succeed in CS, and that part of that success has been because students see MediaComp as a “creative” form of computing (see my ICER 2013 paper).
I have heard arguments for STEAM as enhancing STEM. For example, design studio approaches can enhance engineering education (as in Chris Hundhausen’s work — see link here). In that sense of STEAM, Art offers ways of investigating and inventing that may enhance engineering design and problem-solving. That’s about using STEAM to enhance STEM, not to dilute or create new course requirements. Jessica Hodgins gave an inspiring opening keynote lecture at SIGCSE 2015 (mentioned here) where she talked about classes that combined art and engineering students in teams. Students learned from each other new perspectives that informed and improved their practice.
“STEM” and “STEAM” as acronyms don’t have enough content to say whether we’ve in favor or against them. There is a connotation for “STEM” about a goal: More kids need to know STEM subjects, and we should emphasize STEM subjects in school. For me, STEM is an important goal (meaning an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in schools), and STEAM is one pathway (meaning using art to engage STEM learning, or using art as a valuable perspective for STEM learners) to that goal.
No one — least of all me — is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.
The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.