STEAM: Why art is a necessary aspect of STEM education and practice (plus 30 STEAM resources for teachers)

Based on the acronym alone, you might assume that STEM education focuses on learning science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics. In reality, the STEM education curriculum is typically delivered via integrated learning, where two or more of the topics are combined to represent a real-world approach to problem-solving. Project-based learning techniques allow teachers to be creative with their approach in engaging students around STEM subjects.

According to the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), “high-quality K–12 STEM education is an essential, relevant, and continual endeavor for all students.” In the NSTA’s position statement, they note that STEM education should:

  1. Enable students to become analytical and critical thinkers
  2. Increase their science, mathematics, and technology literacy
  3. Foster the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs
  4. Provide opportunities for students to engage in 21st-century skills, including teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, communication, and creative thinking
  5. Offer learning experiences in which students apply what they are learning in relevant, meaningful ways

While STEM education practices and curricula vary, the need for an integrated and relevant approach to educating students in these disciplines is essential to helping them meet professional demands after graduating. One way to keep students engaged and foster problem-solving skills is to integrate art with the STEM curriculum, creating a new acronym: STEAM.  

“The addition of art to STEM education … makes science, technology, engineering, and math experiments more entertaining and approachable. That’s just one reason why art was added to STEM education,” notes TryEngineering on the origins of the STEAM acronym.

5 more reasons to integrate art into STEM curriculum

Art’s integration into the STEM curriculum goes beyond student engagement and interest. Utilizing project-based learning that incorporates art can help create a foundation while giving students opportunities to tackle real-world issues with a team.

Below are five more reasons to integrate art into a STEM curriculum, based on research from the Asian Journal of University Education (AJUE) and the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

  1. It allows students to connect to the established elements of STEM in art practices, design principles, and assessment.
  2. STEAM promotes inquiry and collaboration, and emphasizes a project-based learning approach.
  3. Arts education involves the critical processes of creativity and innovation.
  4. The artistic processes of creating (presenting, performing and/or producing, responding, and connecting) are fundamental to student success across all domains.
  5. STEAM increases learner empowerment, interest, and engagement; as well as a student’s ability to make connections and transfer knowledge.

The skills and experiences that STEAM education offers students are valuable in and of themselves, regardless of the path a student ultimately chooses to take. 

How STEAM empowers teachers and students 

As an educator, it can be challenging to find ways to empower students to succeed. With the importance of STEM education, finding ways to make STEM subjects interesting to all students is essential, especially with younger K–12 students. Engaging students with STEM projects early can help them hone in on a topic of study when pursuing a future STEM education or career.

Research by the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) indicates that “the arts are positioned to introduce new competencies and skills, including active learning; social, emotional, and interpersonal skills; divergent thinking; and cultural competency. These skills have unique applications to school, work, and life. While STEM education can also foster these habits of mind, the arts provide an opportunity to strengthen learning and cognitive development in meaningful and intentional ways.”

One of the key elements to successful STEAM curricula is project-based learning, which creates an innovative environment for students to work on real-world problems. In addition to fostering cognitive development, the soft skills that STEAM projects provide are essential for students’ future success in the workforce. In order to succeed on a team, they’ll need strong communication, collaboration, and creative problem-solving skills — each of which can be honed through STEAM projects. 

In an article from EdSurge about how learning soft skills sets students up for success, Jaron Louers shares, “When you’re mentoring younger individuals who may not have as much experience in certain concepts as you, you need to make things as simple as possible so that they can start to build a foundation. There can be a lot of complex, technical things you’re dealing with, but when you have the ability to translate that into a way everyone can understand, it also helps with your own understanding.” 

In addition to honing soft skills, STEAM education also gives students experience with design thinking, another necessary skill within the technology field. Design thinking involves a creative and systematic approach to problem solving that begins with discovery, followed by ideation, experimentation, and evolution. This interactive process is very similar to the process of tech product creation, which also combines technology with art and design. 

According to the SEADAE, “STEAM education empowers teachers to build a strong community of learning. This learning community inherently offers an opportunity to develop holistic and comprehensive curricula that address academic standards in multiple subject areas through rigorous STEAM lessons, units, and assessments. This benefits learners and has a positive impact on teachers, as well.”

The importance of project-based learning in STEAM

STEAM education goes beyond simply integrating art subjects into STEM education. It also involves project-based learning, which combines multiple disciplines in real-world scenarios. Project-based learning encourages students to collaborate using creative problem-solving and critical thinking to draw conclusions and share them at the end of the project. 

“Unlike traditional school projects that often take place at the end of a unit, project-based learning, or PBL, is an educational philosophy that calls upon students to take on a real-world question — such as how to best design a farm — and explore it over a period of weeks. Teachers incorporate grade-level instruction into the project, which is designed to meet academic goals and standards, and students learn content and skills while working collaboratively, thinking critically, and often revising their work. At the end, that work is shared publicly,” explains US News and World Report.

In early education, teachers can stick to two-topic combinations as they introduce students to PBL, but over time, more subjects can be integrated to encompass the full STEAM curriculum. This is not limited to visual art. Language arts are also a great way to integrate art into STEM, which can also help expose students to new cultures and learning opportunities.

30 STEAM resources for teachers

  1. Planning your STEAM project-based learning (PDF, 1,975 KB): This PDF from Pi-Top offers templates, checklists, and lesson plans designed to help teachers and administrators develop STEAM projects. 
  2. Arts Impact Curricula: This resource list from Arts Impact offers curricula, lesson plans, and steps to help teachers combine art with math and other subjects in both English and Spanish.  
  3. Edutopia Resources for STEAM: This STEAM resource list from Edutopia offers information, examples, and tools for incorporating the arts, design, and humanities into school activities.
  4. STEAM-Project-Based Learning Integration to Improve Elementary School Students’ Scientific Literacy on Alternative Energy Learning: This Universal Journal of Education Research study examines the integration of arts into STEM to improve scientific literacy in elementary school students. 
  5. The integration of STEAM project-based learning to train students’ critical thinking skills in science learning through electrical bell project: This Journal of Physics Conference Series focuses on a study of ways to help develop critical thinking skills in students through the incorporation of project-based STEAM learning. 
  6. 17 Examples of STEM Project Based Learning Activities: The ProjectPals website offers examples of STEM projects for early childhood and K–12 students, including STEAM activities. 
  7. Getting Started with Project-Based Learning in STEAM: This webinar from the American English Live Teacher Professional Development Series, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, helps teachers identify the characteristics of strong STEAM projects. 
  8. Full STEAM Ahead with Project Based Learning: This blog post from the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation documents the journey of Bates Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina, while implementing STEAM project-based learning. 
  9. STEAM Project-based Learning: This presentation, co-funded by Erasmus + Programme of the European Union, covers learning methodologies and recommendations based on project design and integration. 
  10. STEAM Project Based Learning Units: This resource list from the Genesee Valley Central School District offers project-based STEAM learning units for K–12. 
  11. Project Based Learning Powered by STEAM: This article from New Hampshire Arts Learning Network shares the story of a high school using theatrical performance as a method of research into conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. 
  12. Project Based Learning Pedagogical Design in STEAM Art Education: This study explores the potential of project-based learning and STEAM in the classroom. It includes pedagogical design and conclusions based on research on integrating art into STEM. 
  13. STEAM Teaching Resources for Educators: This resource list offers a variety of STEAM resources for teachers, including links to STEAM articles, projects, and activities.
  14. STEAM Up Learning with 50 Fabulous Resources: This blog offers links to 50 STEAM resources, including activities, projects, and lessons.
  15. Resources for Current & Future STEAM Educators: This list offers resources for both current and future educators, including links to grants and other financial assistance. 
  16. LinkedIn Learning Project-Based Learning: STEM to STEAM: In this video, Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) is featured as a model for a new kind of public education via project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
  17. Edutopia STEAM + Project-Based Learning: Real Solutions From Driving Questions: In this video, third-grade students at Charles R. Drew Charter School use project-based learning to prepare for the next Snowpocalypse.
  18. STEAM Education Program Overview: In this video about the STEAM program, educators and students learning with STEAM offers a framework for teaching across disciplines.
  19. What is STEAM Education in K-12 Schools?: This video explains the differences between STEM and STEAM and how to implement the approach to increase creativity, enhance student equity, and develop inquiry-based learning.
  20. TEDx Talks STEAM education for social transformation | Dr. Bal Chandra Luitel | TEDxKathmanduUniversity: This talk shares an example of a STEAM education research program that brings together students, teachers, and other stakeholders in a collaborative framework.
  21. KitHub STEM Professional Development for Educators: Getting Started: This video helps teachers getting started implementing STEAM in their classrooms. 
  22. EarthX STEAM Curriculum (PDF, 4.6 MB): These lessons from EarthX are divided into four areas of focus (earth, energy, cities, and climate) and can be adapted to align with specific learning outcomes.
  23. Common Sense Education | STEAM Games, Apps, and Sites: This STEAM resource list features interdisciplinary lessons and activities organized by subject. 
  24. KitHub Free STEAM Lesson Plans: This resource lists free downloadable KitHub lesson plans. 
  25. PBS Learning Media WV STEAM Lesson Plans: This collection of lesson plans integrates art and design with math, science, technology, and engineering. 
  26. Nasco Education STEM/STEAM Lesson Plans and Activities: This list of lesson plans for K–12 teachers includes resources for all levels.
  27. We Are Teachers 50 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Teaching STEAM: This resource list includes practical tips to help teachers implement STEAM lessons and activities. 
  28. LEGO® Education Unit Plans and Lessons: LEGO® offers over 400 lessons for teachers in a variety of grade levels and subjects. 
  29. 61+ STEM and STEAM Activities for Kids that are Ridiculously Fun: This resource list offers over 61 STEAM activities that focus on making lessons more fun. 
  30. Joslyn Art Museum WHEN SHARKS MEET ART: This lesson plan for middle school students centers around the question of how to use illustrations to sell products without emphasizing cultural divides.

The future of STEAM education

With STEAM education, the arts become an entry point to STEM that can help provide more access to opportunities for students who otherwise might not be interested in science or math. This is also a key consideration for students who are reluctant to pursue STEM because they may lack engagement in science and math classes. Integrating art subjects into STEM can help to create a holistic approach to education in these disciplines.

Bernard Marr explained in a Forbes article, “It makes sense to educate our children with the skills and capacity to think outside the box with creative solutions. This is something a STEAM education can effectively prepare them to do.”

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