From STEM to STEAM: Diversity and the integration of the Arts into STEM


By: Nathan N. Alexander

Historically, STEM has been used in the United States as an acronym to situate and link the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In original form, the term was generated as a means to situate education policies and as a tool for curricular innovation and national competitiveness, among other items. Similar terms, such as MINT, which stands for ‘Mathematics, Information Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Technology’, have not experienced the success, in terms of usage, of the STEM acronym and thus are not commonplace in discussions on education. More recently, however, the term STEAM has become more readily apparent in education policy literature. In general, STEAM seeks to transform education policy and encourage the integration of the arts and design into K-20 education, primarily as a means to drive innovation. The STEAM movement seeks to broaden the conception of the STEM fields, which have been traditionally situated as hard and unreachable subjects for some youth. One implication of this movement is an assured increase in situating diversity in the now STEM fields, but only in instances where integration and implementation are well thought out in advance.

The public education agenda in the United States has positioned STEM as a centerpiece in debates about important and requisite skills for national competitiveness. More broadly, institutions such as the National Science Foundation have presented guidelines on what constitutes as STEM field, which have contributed to more discipline specific ways of thinking and less multidisciplinary and integrative frames. As a result, and in K-12 education, these guidelines have been situated, separated, and couched in terms like college readiness and 21st century learning that lacks a holistic perspective on student learning. For example, in American society one is thought of as an “arts” person or a “science” person; it is rare that these two exists or are fully embraced all at once. Much of this way of thinking is the result of a political ideology and government agenda set to maintain competitiveness versus generate a healthy and holistically educated youth. It is no surprise, then, that historically STEM has its roots in debates about the number of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Less surprising is that these debates existed with a specific regard to immigration. Namely, the question, “How do we get the best workers here in the U.S?” In light of the fight for national competitiveness, a focus on specific communities and subsequent issues of diversity in STEM increased.

Low expectations and high barriers for STEM have historically made entry into these fields difficult, especially for marginalized and underrepresented students of color, as Dr. Chloe Poston has previously discussed. In K-12 education, STEAM has been situated more broadly as a framework for education, as opposed to a curriculum or curricular tool. Georgette Yakman, one founder in the STEAM Education movement describes the framework as one that allows representation of the whole world. Previous posts here at The Poston Collective have discussed the need for more integration across disciplines. For example, Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial noted how STEM and Social Science go Hand in Hand. Elsewhere, significant debates exist around the emphasis on STEM. The majority of these debates focus on whether STEM has provided proper and substantive content to teaching and learning in K-20 contexts. Beyond how it is written, additional debates arose from how STEM is interpreted. Further questions about rigidity and inclusiveness continue.

Is STEAM one potential puzzle piece to reducing persistent issues of diversity?

In my opinion, good teaching already accounts for STEAM. However, the STEAM community formalizes the process and takes on Science and Technology by interpreting Engineering through the usage of the Arts, which are all based in Mathematics. I use this post as a call to urge us all to better understand the STEAM movement in detail and to identify the nuances that will be presented in the months and years to come. While innovation and growth of this sort provide fair opportunity to engage new ways of doing, it is too often that new issues of diversity and access follow. STEAM will only provide the contexts to “paint” a new picture of diversity given well-planned and situated integration that will include all students and not only those with access to, for example, more information and resources. Further, unlike its STEM counterpart, this new movement should not be focused solely on increasing national competitiveness but instead as one potential way to increase diversity and justice for communities that have been traditionally left out of the STEM fields.

Full STEAM ahead!

One thought on “From STEM to STEAM: Diversity and the integration of the Arts into STEM

  1. Pingback: I’m a scientist, so I’m sensitive about my data: The creativity within STEM |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s