Gaining Steam

Exploring the Benefits of Stem and Steam Education

By Michelle Bourg

A well-rounded curriculum used to be “The Three Rs,” or “reading, writing and arithmetic.” Today, STEM, and STEAM are becoming the dominant measure of what students need to learn. But what exactly are STEM and STEAM, and how are they different from traditional learning? Do they offer any real benefit to your child? A closer look shows that STEM and STEAM education is an approach that offers students real benefits and will change how they learn and prepare for the future.

Focusing on Math and Science: STEM The history of STEM dates back to the beginning of the “space race,” and the call for a renewed focus on science and mathematics education in response to the launch of Sputnik by the then Soviet Union. As technological advances grew exponentially over the next four decades, educators renewed a commitment to science and math to address a perceived achievement gap in these subjects between U.S. students and their international counterparts. The National Science Foundation developed the now-universal acronym STEM in 2001 to describe guidelines for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

STEM uses an interdisciplinary, project- based approach to teach science and math and show their application to the “real world,” as opposed to the traditional approach of addressing them as separate textbook subjects. In Georgia, STEM education is defined as “an integrated curriculum (as opposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics taught in isolation) that is driven by problem solving, discovery, exploratory project/problembased learning and student-centered development of ideas and solutions.”

Several Cobb County middle schools recently applied STEM principles by using the construction of SunTrust Park as the inspiration for projects on computingbatting averages, calculating the angles of baselines and analyzing the different types of soil found on the playing field. Students presented their findings to fans and players; the project was so successful that the county will roll it out to other schools this year.

A STEM-oriented curriculum covers every phase of education from Pre-K to college. At the elementary level, introductory classes introduce structured inquiry and problem solving, while presenting a general awareness of STEM-based fields and occupations. This awareness is more strongly emphasized as students progress into more challenging classes in middle school, with a special effort to reach underrepresented populations, including female students. Practical applications are emphasized at the high school level, with a concentration on preparing for postsecondary education and employment.

The current emphasis on STEM in schools worldwide is in response to a pressing need. In the U.S. alone, projections predict a need for more than eight million workers in STEM-related jobs, and the manufacturing sector alone faces a shortage of 600,000 skilled employees. Students graduating with these skills find a wide range of opportunities, especially in computing, expected to produce more than 70 percent of jobs by next year. Significant numbers of jobs are also being created in engineering, the physical and life sciences, and mathematics.

However, the emphasis placed on STEM over the past 15 years has not yet positioned the country to meet this need. The U.S. Dept. of Education reports that only 16% of high school students report an interest in a STEM-related career and have the necessary proficiency in mathematics. Almost two thirds of high school freshmen that declare an interest in a STEM-related field lose interest before they graduate high school.

In response to this, government and industry have been partnering to motivate more students to develop an interest in STEM fields and educate more teachers qualified to teach these subjects. The Committee on Stem Education (CoSTEM), which is made up of 13 separate agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, is creating a joint national strategy for federal funding of K-12 STEM programs, increasing public and youth engagement, and enriching postsecondary STEM education.

Adding an “A”: Enter STEAM Education As important as STEM education is, it’s been pointed out that it leaves out the arts and humanities, which many believe are equally important in addressing the needs of a 21st-century economy. In 2006, Georgette Yakman, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, added an “A” to the acronym to represent the liberal arts and developed the framework for STEAM education: “Science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, all based in a language of mathematics.” The idea soon found its way into curricula around the globe.

Using the STEAM approach, students might use their science studies to create education materials for that subject, or create art designed for 3D viewing. At the Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, 3D printing is used across subjects and grade levels to apply classroom learning to the creation of real-world models.

Some STEM proponents point to the current issues with student engagement with STEM to argue that science and math should remain the sole focus of modern education in order to bolster U.S. economic competitiveness, and that adding the arts detracts from this focus.

Advocates of STEAM education argue that inclusion of the liberal arts equips scientists to think abstractly, adds a human element and addresses the problem of declining student engagement by fostering inclusion of “right brain” students. A STEAM education enables an architect to design structures that are visibly pleasing as well as practical and environmentally sustainable, or a textile designer to incorporate technological elements such as solar receptivity into attractive fabrics. To STEAM advocates, it’s not a case of adding creativity, but blending it with scientific thinking. Given the added appeal for children of a curriculum that includes the arts, and the expanded arena of realworld applications, it seems clear that STEAM elements will play an increased role in the future.

Both STEM and STEAM allow students to think in new ways and to see the practical applications of their classwork. As the advantages of the integrated, practical approach of both STEM and STEAM continue to become a part of the curriculum in both public and private schools, the acronyms will lose their importance. Soon, students will only know either of these approaches as just “school.”

For more information on STEM and STEAM education in Atlanta, see stemgeorgia.org.

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