Master of Education

STEAM Education: A 21st Century Approach to Learning

Joseph Lathan, PhD

Joseph Lathan, PhD

Academic Director, Master of Education

As the education world explores strategies to equip students with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to be successful innovators in a 21st century workforce, there has been a growing emphasis on STEAM — the educational discipline that engages students around the subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math.

STEAM aims to spark an interest and lifelong love of the arts and sciences in children from an early age. Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math are similar disciplines in that they all involve creative processes and none uses just one method for inquiry and investigation. Teaching relevant, in-demand skills that will prepare students to become innovators in an ever-evolving world is paramount, not only for the future of the students themselves but for the future of the country.

Also considered helpful in preparing secondary students to succeed in higher education, STEAM has gained popularity among educators, parents, administrators, corporations and other institutions.

What is STEAM?

Before there was STEAM, there was STEM. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the early champions of adding the arts to the original STEM framework to create STEAM, said doing so emphasizes the vitally important “symbiosis between the arts and sciences.” According to RISD, “The goal is to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.”

The addition of the arts to the original STEM discipline is important in part because practices such as modeling, developing explanations and engaging in critique and evaluation (argumentation), have too often been underemphasized in the context of math and science education.

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STEAM empowers teachers to employ project-based learning that crosses each of the five disciplines and fosters an inclusive learning environment in which all students are able to engage and contribute. As opposed to traditional models of teaching, educators using the STEAM framework bring the disciplines together, leveraging the dynamic synergy between the modeling process and math and science content, for example, in order to blur the boundaries between modeling techniques and scientific/mathematical thinking. Through this holistic approach, students are able to exercise both sides of their brain at once.

For example, one high school in Andover, Mass., drew attention to its STEAM practices by teaching geometry through the lens of art. “Through a scavenger hunt at a local museum, math and art students come to understand that scale in geometry is the same thing as perspective in art,” Andover High teacher Meghan Michaud said in a U.S. News article.

Beyond the classroom both scientists and engineers use models — including sketches, diagrams, mathematical relationships, simulations and physical models — to make predictions about the likely behavior of a system. They also collect data to evaluate the predictions and possibly revise the model as a result. However, many engineers are not particularly comfortable with sketching; so connecting them with basic artistic skills through STEAM, and equipping them to better “see” their ideas, can help them become better engineers.

Why is STEAM so Important?

In today’s world, setting students up for future success means exposing them to these disciplines holistically in order to develop their critical thinking skills.

“Education is under pressure to respond to a changing world,” education writer Jeevan Vasagar asserts in a Financial Times article. “As repetitive tasks are eroded by technology and outsourcing, the ability to solve novel problems has become increasingly vital.”

And the earlier students are exposed to the STEAM disciplines, the better. In a study by Microsoft, 4 in 5 STEM college students (78%) said they decided to study STEM in high school or earlier and one in five (21%) decided in middle school or earlier. Yet, only 1 in 5 STEM college students feel that their K–12 education prepared them extremely well for their college courses in STEM. There also appears to be a major disparity in the female to male ratio when it comes to those employed in STEAM fields. Getting more girls interested in STEAM disciplines is another facet of the movement.

Not only does a STEAM framework teach students how to think critically, problem solve and use creativity, it prepares students to work in fields that are poised for growth. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in STEM and STEAM related occupations of 8.8% between now and 2028, compared to 5.0% for non-STEM occupations. It also lists median annual wages of $84,880 for STEM/STEAM jobs, compared to $37,020 for all occupations.

Even for students who don’t choose a career in one of the STEM/STEAM fields, the skills students gain from a STEAM education can be translated into almost any career.

“Educating students in STEM subjects (if taught correctly) prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow,” technology innovator and President of Enterra Solutions Stephen DeAngelis says in an article in Wired. “Those subjects teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems — skills that can be used throughout life to help them get through tough times and take advantage of opportunities whenever they appear.”

An important part of this educational approach is that students who are taught under a STEAM framework are not just taught the subject matter but they are taught how to learn, how to ask questions, how to experiment and how to create.

“If the children and students of today are our future, this is the type of education we need,” Naveen Jain, founder of the World Innovation Institute, wrote a number of years ago when STEAM was just gaining momentum (“Schools Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century“). The traditional system of “standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don’t need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges,” he said. “Today’s education system does not focus enough on teaching children to solve real-world problems and is not interdisciplinary, nor collaborative enough in its approach.”

The continuing evolution from more traditional approaches toward a holistic interdisciplinary method such as STEAM only makes sense in a world facing so many challenges and opportunities — it also requires a certain amount of education for the educators.

That’s why the University of San Diego offers an online Master of Education degree program that gives students the option to specialize in STEAM in a program that is taught by accomplished faculty with extensive experience in K-12 instruction and research. Visit the M.Ed. STEAM specialization page on the USD website to learn more about the program, the course of study and curriculum.

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