From STEM to Full STEAM Ahead

While educating students on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) prepares students for life, it can also prepare them for college and career. It is predicted that in the next 10 years, STEM jobs will grow by 17% as compared to 12% for non-STEM jobs. (STEMtistic on Display: STEM Job Surge)

Many STEM lessons enable students to discover real-world solutions to real-world problems. And as students enter the middle grades, they start to develop the skills to create some phenomenal solutions.

There are many teaching tools to support STEM education, but lessons and units must still be well thought out. Learning objectives and pedagogy must be incorporated in the lessons to make them effective. And we’ve found that STEM studies can be even more powerful with project-based learning, especially when using interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches.

When adding the “A” (arts and humanities) to STEM, STEAM has the opportunity to appeal to even more students. STEAM compliments both sides of the brain. By incorporating all components into a lesson, unit, or project, STEAM education naturally differentiates instruction. It appeals to learning styles, interests, and learning capacity. This creates more ideas from the students, and allows them more creative input.

At Belhaven Middle School, our students have opportunities to add the “A” in the design phase of many problem-solving and project-based assessments. These may include car design, product design, STEAM Fair, Inventions Contest, renewable energy projects, mosaic portraits, public speaking, performing arts, engineering, architecture, and many cross-curricular opportunities.

Our teachers have found through observation and quality of productivity that these types of lessons increase students’ imagination over time. Likewise, brainstorming and problem-solving with a partner or in a group has improved outcomes. Every teacher agrees that students learn best when they are inspired and engaged.

STEAM also offers opportunities for collaboration among educators and students. This school year, we formed a STEAM Professional Learning Community (PLC), and our own action research concluded what our research and literature review told us 12 years ago: barriers to STEAM include time and isolation. The time available to collaborate and plan is a factor in teachers working with other teachers and students (Rudnesky, 2004).

Making STEAM Work

Online collaboration has allowed us to eliminate some of these obstructions. With Google Docs and Google Classrooms, teachers have naturally moved to more of a blended classroom. This promotes less structure with more direction and allows students to take calculated, creative risks.

Formative assessment is made through teachers’ observations of students’ performance. Students are encouraged to share their own observations of projects to reinforce the collaborative focus in the process of learning.

Supportive classroom environments encourage students to initiate discussion and demonstration. Students are empowered to think for themselves, and teachers are careful to demonstrate that they are interested in students’ original ideas.

Cross-curricular units can help engage students and bring deeper learning. Several years ago our school designed a cross-curricular unit for the entire seventh grade. This unit on medieval social studies collaborated with the related arts cycle of visual art, vocal music, physical education, and industrial technology. The only thing missing was the jargon. At that time, we did not identify the “A”, however, the unit did include aesthetics, visual art, performing arts, and humanities.

Teaching the whole child is possible through the STEAM approach, particularly with a cross-curricular unit. For instance, our eighth grade unit on renewable energy infuses character education and leadership theory. Students render ideas with the environment and ethics in mind. Then the students design and build a “working” model. Our students use Google SketchUp for a design-modeling program, a MakerBot 3D printer, and some wise words from Thomas Edison—”to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk”—to develop life changing innovations producing one to thirty volts.

A STEAM Career Fair can be a great experience the students and community. This spring we offered a STEAM Career Fair to educate our students and parents about college and career opportunities and get students excited about the endless possibilities of STEAM in the classroom. The career fair engaged educators, engineers, artists, musicians, medical personnel, and Google employees to demonstrate their work. Additionally students with STEM interests outside the classroom had a chance to serve as instructors. The event featured a keynote, mini presentations, career booths, workshops, exhibits, and family challenges (problem-solving). (Read more at ShoreNewsToday: Full Steam ahead in Linwood)

The STEAM Career Fair and the STEAM Fair are culminations, but by no means the pinnacle, of our vision. We want to achieve project-based, problem-solving units of instruction that allow our teachers and students to collaborate and use higher level questioning to create cross-curricular units of instruction that solve real problems.

And the best thing is … students have the opportunity to find their passion while exploring viable college and career choices.

Frank Rudnesky, Ed.D., is principal of Belhaven Middle School, Linwood, New Jersey, and an author and presenter. Email:

Peter Davis is a teacher at Belhaven Middle School, New Jersey, and was recognized as the 2014 Atlantic County Teacher of the Year. Email:

Frank Pileiro is a technologist at the Linwood Public Schools, New Jersey, and a presenter and evaluator of tech products. Email:


Rudnesky, F. (2004) Facilitating changes in perception and classroom strategy through mentoring: a case study of technology and its integration with classroom instruction, dissertation, 25.

Other STEAM Resources

Rudnesky, F. From vision to classroom, Principal Leadership, Retrieved January 10, 2015 from:

STEAM Education: A Natural Fit, Retrieved December 1, 2014,

Saraniero, P. Retrieved January 10, 2015 from:

Williams, L. February 2013 retrieved January 10, 2015 from:


  1. I think adding the ‘A’ to STEM to make it STEAM is very important. It is more inclusive of a wider variety of students. It also helps differentiate instruction.

  2. Adding the art to stem is an important part to me because mostly stem projects include that art part and it just expands on what kind of resources fall under this section of steam. It’s interesting to then see how many different ideas the students come up with.

  3. I never have had the thought process of how adding the “A” to STEM can engage students who don’t necessarily see themselves as mathematicians. This also makes sense because so much of what we do in STEM needs creativity and an “artistic” viewpoint on how to design and engineer projects to work efficiently and effectively.

  4. As some one in at Art education field, I am happy to see STEAM integrating more into the school setting. You are right, it does bring in the missing piece of getting the whole brain involved in the creative process. Many of the real world jobs some of the students who are interested in the STEM portion of STEAM will find themselves needing that extra creative problem solving that can be learned in the arts part of the equation. Also outside of the STEAM classes, having more overall collaboration between different subjects can greatly benefit students and teacher in the classroom.