We live in a world where you can’t understand science
without technology, which couches most of if its research
and development in engineering, which you can’t create
without an understanding of the arts and mathematics.
I came to this realization while studying the common
factors of teaching and learning across the STEM disciplines
of science, technology, engineering, and math. These fields
can be intimidating to some students and traditionally
do not attract many minorities or women. Many of those
who do decide to pursue STEM careers do so without the
important knowledge and skills that come from studying
Social, fine, manual, physical, and liberal arts actually
expand on and influence the traditional STEM fields of
study. For example,
- Language arts is a means to share ideas, life experiences,
- Manual and physical arts influence such areas as
- Fine and musical arts reflect society’s values and
directions in the past and present.
- Social and liberal arts are a context for studying attitudes,
ethics, and customs.
All of this comes together in the STEAM framework, which
is based on this simple definition: Science and Technology,
interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements. The goal of STEAM is to teach
students how to better learn and apply new knowledge
from a multidisciplinary, reality-based perspective.
Education should more naturally reflect the world it teaches
about. STEAM education strives for functional literacy—
an ability to transfer knowledge with higher-order thinking
between disciplines—and a FUNctional literacy—an
ability to learn about and keep up with the modern world
and to affect it through individual passions and skills.
STEAM incorporates non-core classes into the STEM-based
curriculum to stress the common linkages among all fields
The STEAM framework revolves around using universal
thematic units such as ergonomics, nutrition and health,
transportation, communication, and power and energy to
show the cross-over applications of how the knowledge
from core classes are applied in context.
STEAM is fully adaptable by every administrator, guidance
counselor, teacher, and student throughout the process.
It is designed this way so that within the structure of a
traditional school system, students have a venue in which
to explore careers based on learning more about their
individual interests, talents, and limitations—academically,
physically, and socially. Within each program, education
leaders and educators work together to adapt and expand
their own curriculum.
STEAM in Action
Ideally STEAM uses a thematic unit taught by multiple
discipline-based teachers; each teacher plans lessons
around the identified theme and helps students make
connections to the discipline’s benchmarks and standards
through projects. As they work on a common theme
across the curriculum, students develop a much better
understanding about the common elements among
topics and disciplines.
For example, the STEAM thematic unit Around the
World in Many Ways teaches students about transportation
systems well beyond types of vehicles; it includes
transportation concepts such as weather patterns and
wireless technology. The topic is broad, and each content
teacher’s students contribute different parts to the project.
In the science class, students explore the inputs, outputs,
and impacts (by-products) of transportation systems. In
technology, students focus on what kinds of technology
have been and need to be developed to promote
transportation. The engineering focus is on the inventions
and goals of the industry.
The arts teachers—including language arts, liberal
arts, and fine and musical arts—address the societal
expectations of systems, including aesthetic, auditory,
ethical, and personal functions within societies. The math
teachers explore the principles and equations that define
how and why things work.
For a unit on ship building, students across the
curriculum could study
- The science of water, structural materials and buoyance
factors, and geography.
- The technology of machines, concepts and skills that
allow for construction, production, transportation,
communication, and power.
- The engineering of planning and design.
- The mathematics needed to visualize and develop ships.
- The physical, manual, fine, and liberal arts concepts used
in ship building, including history and politics.
- The language arts to research, convey, and report all
This integration of fields is the most important element
of the STEAM framework.
That’s not to say that the individual “silo” disciplines
should not be taught. The discrete topics of science,
technology, engineering, arts, and math should be covered
at focus levels—where individual subjects are the primary
topic of focus. Specific content areas should be studied
Career Exploration and Community
STEAM ensures all students have a common knowledge
of all the fields of study, how they relate to each other,
and how they can build a career around one or more of
those areas. Through exploratory real-life problem solving,
students have an arena in which to try out different aspects
of different types of careers to help them make important
decisions about their futures. Along the way they learn
much-needed team and workplace skills.
For example, the STEAM unit What’s Your Point? helps
students explore their talents and interests and identify
opportunities to make a difference in the world. Through
individual and group projects, they learn to fit productively
into a larger framework. They are exposed to a large range
of skill sets and career choices through projects that
include research and development. They evaluate local,
regional, state, national, and international career path
opportunities and developments in historical, current,
and potential contexts.
Within the structure of the STEAM program is the
concept of community. STEAM programs can encourage
students to play a more active part in their community and
look for ways to benefit from and support their local areas.
Businesses typically have an interest in fostering
academic growth and forging partnerships with the
schools. They can provide career education, hands-on
experience within a business, as well as funding and
The STEAM framework offers an adaptable structure
that can foster the growth and development of academic
programs in conjunction with their communities.
For example, last year, the minister of education in
South Korea announced that all K–12 schools in South
Korea would adopt the STEAM framework. Their school
systems and culture are very different from those in the
United States and in many ways are even more structured,
yet they are adapting and expanding on the concept to fit
The ultimate goal of STEAM is to help every student
learn and grow and become part of a global village. This
makes classrooms more naturally inclusive without adding
additional work for the educational team. All students learn
from each other as they apply the new knowledge they
gained from a multi-discipline, reality-based standpoint.
Today’s emphasis on STEM has marginalized the arts to
some extent. In public education, only language arts and
social studies are still given prime status outside the STEM
areas. To me this is a tragedy, because ignoring the arts as
vital to education eliminates many ways for students to
achieve contextual understanding.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2012