To STEAM or not to STEAM? That Isn't the Question




Growing up, my parents were obdurately hands-off when it came to influencing my and my siblings’ career interests. This may explain why, at age 6, my sister announced she would be pursuing full-time work as a butterfly. (To her credit, she currently manages a garden shop, which for a human isn’t too far off.) We were given simple guidance: to remember that all work is noble and to view happiness as a measure of success. Years later, college recruitment materials like snowdrifts on the dining room table, imperceptibly swayed by the quixotic tenets of early childhood, I decided to study music at university and later pursued a career singing opera (with meager success).

As someone with an arts background who now works in a STEM field, I struggle to form a coherent opinion on the STEM/STEAM debate. It seems as if arguments regarding the inclusion of the Arts in STEM education – the transition from STEM to STEAM – are as varied as the disciplines each curricula aims to include. Proponents find that the Arts can be instrumental in boosting student engagement and are particularly effective as an “on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students.” As stimulants for creativity and innovation, some STEAM supporters contend that the Arts – and with them an arts education – are essential to building a strong US economy.

Conversely, adherents to the more traditional STEM approach feel that adding Arts to an already crowded roster dilutes STEM’s primary mission, which is to develop math and science skills through engineering. With a broadening STEM skills gap in the US labor force, this watering-down, STEM supporters say, is something we simply cannot afford.

Regardless of what camp you belong to, examples of successful STEM and STEAM implementations abound, from Upward Bound programs all over the country to Blue School to the Boston Arts Academy STEAM Lab. While each is unique, they share several common themes: a focus on design and design thinking as well as inviting playfulness into a creative planning process. Be it STEM or STEAM, the goal here is to apply knowledge in solving real problems, demonstrating a belief in the application of skills as a mechanism for deeper learning.

STEAM1And I get and believe in the application bit. But I find the arguments from both camps problematic chiefly because they reinforce the rather antiquated notion that art and science are mutually exclusive enterprises, circles in a Venn diagram with no overlap. Not only do elements of art and science coexist in physics just as they do in ballet, the assertion that art is not science and, as such, its worthiness stems from its ability to further scientific causes, feeds this narrative that work which is scientific and factual is more important than labor which is primarily communicative, evocative, or interpretive, and inherently value laden.

But is it? For better or worse, science has long enjoyed a privileged position in our societies. Think about the transformation of higher education in the 20th century. Social sciences – like political science, public and business management, sociology, education, and psychology – all experienced identity crises, “subjecting their research traditions to epistemological and ontological gauntlets in search of a paradigmatic base or precise identity through which to promote scientific rigor or ‘science’ in their respective fields” (Riccucci, 2010, p. 31). Translated, in an effort to gain legitimacy in the academy, social sciences endeavored to become more like the “hard sciences” by changing the way they engaged in research. In short, social sciences pushed for greater empiricism and got way more positivist.

When thinking about the role of education – be it STEM, STEAM, or other – as the mechanism through which a society empowers citizens “to become active participants in the transformation of their societies,” it’s no wonder we focus on science and technology. If being an active participant in society requires individuals to achieve a certain threshold of economic power, encouraging youth to pursue work in the fastest growing and highest paying market is certainly a logical way to err.

I can’t help but think, though, that the buzz around aligning curricula to market trends – which fails to address scant evidence (at least at the postsecondary level) linking job-driven strategies to improved employment outcomes – overlooks human values in its promotion of capitalist ones. In monetizing the value of science, have we lost all sense of the non-monetary value of art? Are we devaluing it precisely because it’s hard to measure? Perhaps a more compelling version of the future highlights STEM professionals as integral members of interdisciplinary teams whose work will change the world. I've no doubt that many of tomorrow's problems will be solved with forward-thinking computer scientists, among others, at the table.

Reflecting on my own metamorphosis, from opera (art) to research (science), this notion that the transfer of skills from one to the other is unidirectional is, frankly, laughable. For me, the links between these seemingly disparate experiences have happily become a dense and reciprocal net. The resilience learned from countless hours failing in a practice room has certainly fueled many a late night modelling session just as perfecting research protocols has made me more exacting and efficient in rehearsal.

I guess what I'm saying is that arguing whether it should be STEM or STEAM misses a larger, more important point. As articulated by Anne Jolly, “we need students who are motivated and competent in bringing forth solutions to tomorrow’s problems…it’s about making every student a fully-literate 21st century citizen.” In my mind, that includes literacy in the arts and sciences with equal import, not one in the service of the other.


About Author

Clare FitzGerald

Curriculum Development Specialist

Clare FitzGerald is a research scientist with Curriculum Pathways. As part of a cross-disciplinary research team seeking to improve youth outcomes, Clare facilitates community collaborations, conducts applied research, and generates digital content. Clare joined Curriculum Pathways in 2014, and in 2016 completed her PhD in Public Administration from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include performance measurement and management as well as innovation and technology adoption and use.


  1. Martha Abernethy on

    Brava Clare!! As an arts major who segued into "bidness", I can easily testify that the arts help with "out of the box" thinking, which is the basis for many problem solutions. Enjoyed your brief essay!

Leave A Reply

Back to Top