The Many Themes of STEAM

Posted by Ms. Talia Gibas, Dec 18, 2013 6 comments

Talia Gibas Talia Gibas

Back in May, I shared my reservations about efforts to “turn STEM to STEAM.” I didn’t question “whether the arts and sciences are connected. What was missing for me was an articulation of how they are connected. Sure, there are elements of geometry in visual art, and yes, you need to understand basic math in order to read music or follow rhythms in dance. But arranging letters on a page is one thing; bringing disciplines together in a thoughtful and authentic way is something entirely different.”

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of spending several days with other members of the Arts and STEM Collaborative for 21st Century Learning, a cohort of arts and science education leaders from across Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties. We’ve met three times since the summer, and despite our thoughtful conversations, I had a nagging question: is STEM-to-STEAM simply about the integration of the arts and STEM subjects? If so, can we take an existing definition of arts integration (I’m a fan of the one developed by The Kennedy Center), declare the S, T, E, and/or M the “other subject area,” and call it a day? If not, why not? How is STEAM different?

Many pondering-in-traffic and musing-in-the-shower hours later, I had a thought. The STEM movement has its share of complications (math is  very different from science which is very different from engineering, and promoting integration between those pesky four letters is a massive project in and of itself), but when members of our Collaborative talked about it we seemed to have a consistent understanding of what it is. When we talked about arts and STEM, however, we circled around three broad themes of intersection between art and science education:

  1. STEAM as a way to promote design thinking. This theme emerges in the overlap between visual art, technology, and engineering. It’s about getting students to create things that are useful, beautiful, and possibly unconventional. Thanks to Steve Jobs, I think it’s also what business leaders have top of mind when they advocate for a STEAM approach in education.
  2. STEAM as a way to promote inquiry-driven learning. This theme extends across all arts disciplines, but of the STEM disciplines aligns itself most closely with science. It describes artistic and scientific processes as parallel means by which children make sense of the world. It is a manifestation of constructivist learning theory, in which students learn by exploring and creating. In my experience, it’s also what many elementary generalist educators describe when they talk about STEAM.
  3. STEAM as a way to learn STEM concepts while engaging in creative expression. Of the three, this theme comes closest to applying STEM to a pre-existing definition of arts integration. (Think of a lesson that allows students to explore physics concepts through dance.) It applies to any combination of arts and STEM disciplines. I haven’t heard a lot of science educators talk about STEAM this way, particularly not at the secondary level, but arts educators, and to a lesser extent generalist teachers, do it frequently.

A few caveats are in order: these thoughts are at their early stages, and are by no means a comprehensive list of everything that STEAM is or could be. While these themes fall under the STEAM umbrella, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive or hierarchical. They do, however, have distinct foci, and varying levels of appeal to different members of the education community. When we don’t distinguish between them, we run the risk of confusing people, and of missing an opportunity to advance this dialogue on a broad scale.

When I shared these initial thoughts with the Arts and STEM Collaborative, several people (particularly those on the STEM side) had mini eureka moments. For whatever reason, acknowledging those themes made it easier for them to grasp what we mean when we talk about art – and got us excited about the multiple approaches to partnership, pedagogy, and advocacy they offer.

We’ll be fleshing these out in the coming months. In the meantime, do these themes resonate with you? Do they clarify or confuse your thinking? Did I miss any? What do your STEM colleagues think of this?

6 responses for The Many Themes of STEAM


Nettrice says
December 30, 2013 at 3:51 pm

When I think of STEAM I think about John Coltrane using Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity to map and compose "Giant Steps," or Jacolby Satterwite using virtual 3D technology and performance, or Saya Woolfalk using transformational geometry and biology to create her installations. It's not simply arts integration. It's deeper engagement with STEM concepts in the production of artwork.

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Cara says
December 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Hi Talia,

You might want to take a look at the Arts Alliance in Research Universities (A2RU), which generates knowledge, advocacy, and resources that enable universities to integrate artists and arts practices, fostering highly adaptive creators and thinkers. The research examples and tools on this website might enrich your conversation!

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Ms. Talia Gibas says
December 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Thanks for the tip, Cara! It's greatly appreciated.

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Marshall says
December 18, 2013 at 7:39 pm


Clustering the layered educational nuances of these various subject matters into three broadly shared themes is most helpful, especially in the context of cross-talk between specialists. One of my nagging concerns however about the whole STEM/STEAM conversation is the inescapably glib application of these acronyms by politicians and educators. The acronyms are inherently reductive and the labels glibly applied in class rooms and by policy makers. STEAM has seemed destined for sound bites, not deeper discourse of the type you are engaged in with the 21st Century Collaborative. Thank you for delving beyond the standard arts integration models and pat phrases to discern true meaning.

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mikel says
February 20, 2014 at 4:38 pm
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Ken May says
March 10, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Another way to think about this: we might not focus on which letters to include at all, but think, instead, about how we encourage creativity across the curriculum. I think that's the real motivation for STEAM. It's the recognition that we want to provide an education that will produce more CREATIVE engineers, technologist, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc. Our competitiveness depends on it. So right now, arts give students opportunities to practice creativity in ways that many other classes don't. But it doesn't have to be that way. Maybe we need to push through the differences among these disciplines to get to the common elements of creativity that unite them.

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