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Full STEAM Ahead: Why Arts Are Essential in a STEM Education

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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In December of 2015, Old Navy was caught up in a controversy over a tee shirt design in which the word "Artist" was crossed out and replaced with either "Astronaut" or "President." The internet was full of artists and scientists sharing their stories about how art was actually an important part of their lives. There was even a photo of former President George Bush, now an aspiring artist, making its rounds. In fact, NASA even has a page dedicated to astronauts turned artists.

An Obvious Connection

In 2006, Georgette Yakman, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, developed a framework that took the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) acronym one step further. Her STEAM framework incorporated the arts into the traditional STEM curricular areas. Yakman, who holds a BS in Clothing and Textiles, has also worked as a middle and high school engineering and technology teacher and was named NCTC's STEM Teacher of the Year in 2009. It's no wonder that, for her, the connection was obvious.

The connection is also obvious for anyone who has ever worked in any traditional STEM career. Everyone from software engineers and aerospace technicians to biotechnical engineers, professional mathematicians, and laboratory scientists knows that building great things and solving real problems requires a measure of creativity. More and more, professional artists themselves are incorporating technological tools and scientific processes to their art.

STEM education is not merely a focus on four core classes or an increased focus on any individual letter in the acronym. STEM is the marrying and undeniable connection between science, technology, engineering and math. When I think of STEM education, I think of the biochem labs that our Juniors wrote using charts and diagrams of their own data gathered through experimentation and their own questions. I think of the Rube Goldberg machines built by engineering students in our makerspace, and I imagine the classroom furniture and prototypes being built by the students in my own Art and Tech elective class, projects that start with 3D models and prototypes and end in functional designs that are in use throughout the school.

Where's the Art?

Math is the string that holds all of these projects together: data analysis and presentation, measuring and angles. Students interpret their scientific findings through their data visualization, and they are able to work through real-life math problems while troubleshooting a design. If we're teaching STEM subjects in isolation, and if we're still teaching STEM from a textbook or through exams, then we're not really teaching STEM. True STE(A)M education means that students are creating, applying, and incorporating mathematics and at least one of the other content areas into their work. Not every project is going to include every letter in STEM, but ideally, they should allow for the integration of at least two of them. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to complete a quality project without exploring at least two of the letters.

In the STEM examples that I described above, it's easy to pick out the "A," even if it's not explicit. Technical writing is a skill -- a hard one at that. Writing a cohesive lab report that incorporates and effectively and correctly analyzes data requires strong technical writing. In many fields, writing is considered an art, a talent that is considered creative expression, even if the writing in question is a nonfiction work. Creating a successful Rube Goldberg machine goes way beyond just having the machine "work." The best Rube Goldberg machines are whimsical and fun to watch. This aspect of such feats of mechanical engineering requires creativity, and the results can be considered art in and of themselves. As for the furniture, these works require thoughtful and practical mechanical design as well as functional design. Students researched actual needs in our building and then developed their designs based on these real-world needs and their own creative flair.

If we are teaching STEM, we are also inherently teaching the arts. For those students who may not be motivated by the math, the science, or even the technology, it may be the creative piece that gives them the spark they need to truly engage. As educators -- and, indeed, as a society -- we need creative people in STEM fields. And if we're not showing students the creativity in what they're doing and how it allows them to explore their own creative interests, then we're not giving them the full picture of what it means to work in a STEM field.

Please tell us about your experiences integrating the arts into STEM subjects.

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DD's picture

Thanks, Mary Beth. I'm relieved we are getting back to valuing creativity and innovation in education at all levels. And it is vital to STEM, as you point out. I also want to put in a plug for arts for arts' sake. If I had a nickel for every article I've read in the past five years that promoted the arts mostly as a vehicle to teach math and ELA, as well as a tool for test prep... The arts have been a valuable part of human history for millennia. They don't exist for test prep.

Katherine's picture

My district is investigating taking a steam approach. One important concept to keep in mind is that the vast majority of jobs that our students will hold have not yet been created. Many have not yet even been imagined. This means that our most important task as teachers is to promote habits of mind and manners of thinking that stress synthesis, creativity, curiosity, and imagination. Art does this. My art students are presented with problems, visualize solutions, go through planning and experimentation, before finally completing a summative project.

It is also extremely important to not reduce art to the handmaiden of other fields. Art, on its own, not as an add on or tool for something else, is inherently valuable. Art is, at is basis, a means of communication. It is a way of interpreting, working with, and expressing ideas in non-typical ways. Creating a painting isn't about applying paint to a canvas, its about finding a way to communicate complex ideas.

Art is also a product of, creator of, and reactor to culture. Examining the art of a culture helps students learn about said culture, often in more vivid, engaging, and memorable ways than reading a text book. In many sense, art is the ultimate "primary document".

Alex Kluge's picture
Alex Kluge
Dedicated to bringing the best in design and visualization into instruction.

STEM and the arts are both powerful expressions of human creativity so there is a natural and powerful synergy between the two. However, we have to resist the temptations to say "that's art" every time we see creativity or self expression in STEM. STEM is all about creating things that have never existed before, going places we have never gone before, understanding things that have never been understood before and communicating these discoveries.

Creativity, passion and even self expression are intrinsic parts of STEM. If we teach it without these, which we so often do, we are really only teaching disconnected facts about STEM. Further the message that creativity is something outside of STEM is damaging to the interest of almost any student. Certainly if it had been portrayed that way to me I would not have pursued it as a career.

I mean these guys managed to lower a automobile sized semi autonomous robot onto the surface of mars using a supersonic parachute and a rocket powered crane. How's that for unbounded creativity!

So, is the "A" easy to pick out? Not really. What we can easily recognize is the common heritage of creativity and expression. And deep thought shows, as the article says, that STEM does not exist in a vacuum. It happens in a context that includes social and economic forces, and it in turn influences those forces in complex ways.

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

Mary Beth - I love your articles and think you share a lot of really valid points. But I am a little concerned that this article presents art's only value to the STEAM process as bringing creativity to STEM. The arts have inherent values all their own: each form (art, dance, music, theater) provide an avenue of expression, critical AND creative thinking, process over product, and offer a pathway for inquiry. When STEAM is truly being used with integrity, it's not about just bringing creativity to the project. It's about integrating two or more areas intentionally, grounded in standards (both the STEM and the Arts) and assessing both. Otherwise we run the risk of the arts becoming subservient to the STEM (or vice-versa), rather than equitable partners for learning, application and creation. Thanks for helping us facilitate the conversation!

DD's picture

Tangentially related -- "The Math Myth" by Andrew Hacker is a book about how STEM is not worth the attention we give to it. He questions whether schools, government (ESSA, NCLB) , and parents put too much weight on students learning math -- why do you need trigonometry to be a veterinarian? I can't accurately tell you about the book, since I haven't finished reading it.

Sarah W's picture

Hi Katherine, I really agree with the sentiment you've articulated! It's really important to recognize that students today will be doing jobs that we may not even know about yet, and also to recognize that the real world is far more interdisciplinary than schoolwork that we so often present students with. While it is, of course, important to ensure that students have been given the tools they need to succeed in each individual subject matter, we often overlook the fact that in life and the working world, these fields will often collide. There are few clear cut lines in work that dictate knowledge must be pulled purely from one school of thought or another, so giving students practical experience with integrating all these fields, particularly between fields that provide engagement such as the union of STEM and the arts, is of vital importance.

nicholas4569's picture

hey, I am a teacher and i prefer arts most. its so essential for the students. Thanks for sharing

PaulKFox's picture
Retired Music Teacher and Performing Arts Curriculum Leader

Mary Beth and Katherine,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts... You are hitting the nail on the head for nurturing the "A" in STEAM.

My former principal (many years ago) kept leaving out this essential letter. We supposedly had STEM programs at the high school, but they were really an evolution of "technology education" trying to move away from offering shop and drafting. Of course the HS students were "into" robotics and loved "playing" with the 3-D printer and welding equipment... with some application of creativity-based hands-on learning. The younger grades had problem solving competitions like Odyssey of the Mind.

Although I am now retired for several years, I am happy to report great improvement in my district. Our technology curriculum is required of all students, with a strand called Creativity and Innovation with the K-12 competency target, "I can apply creative thinking to the creation of original works using technology."

I have always felt that greater focus and resources need to be devoted to creativity in the schools... on the same level of literacy, logic, and global understanding. We need more opportunities for learning the best practices of personal self-expression, innovation, ingenuity, divergent thinking, adaptability, self-direction, inventiveness, personal initiative, flexibility - openness to new and diverse perspectives, and intrinsic motivation. Check out my blogs on the subject at


Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

Integrating Art instruction into the core curriculum raises rigor and increases connections, which both lead to long term learning. Connecting STEM activites to art instruction opens STEM to many students who might not otherwise be interested.
Dr. Kendra Strange-Shaffer

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