Home » Teacher Tips » Concepts of STEM and STEAM

The educational system that we are following for decades urges us to get our children back to basics through the “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic. For educators, there is now a greater need for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts to integrate with the arts (STEAM) across the wider curriculum.

We know this because business and industry broadcast that future-ready employees need to have multiple areas of expertise or at least appreciate how a range of skills fit together.

Teachers working in cross-curricular STEAM settings often see their students making connections between concepts and solving problems in new and exciting ways. They demonstrate this by active engagement, their discoveries visible in enthusiastic “aha” moments.

You’ve probably heard of the acronym STEM. The term was introduced early in the 21st century as a way to refer to careers and/or curriculum centered around science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the most rapidly growing industries in the U.S. economy. Then as the U.S. and companies continued to ramp up technological innovation, in order to remain competitive across the globe, the movement around integrating STEM into educational frameworks began to gain a lot of traction.

In a nutshell, people began to recognize that it was time to start preparing our youth, and our economy, for the future, by helping students of all ages develop the 21st century skills they will need to be successful, and to play an effective role, in the future workforce.

Fast forward several years, after STEM had become a buzzword in the world of education, and a new, very similar term emerged — STEAM. The “A” in steam refers to arts. And this addition plays a critical role in how we need to be preparing our youth for the future.

To give you a better understanding of how STEAM came about and the importance of implementing a STEAM learning environment, let’s take a look at what led to this movement, what the “A” brings to the table, and how educators and parents can implement this framework in ways that enhance our kids’ continued educational and personal development.

For far too long in education, we’ve been working with the presumption of teaching to ensure our students get a “good job”. But what does that look like? We are preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist.

We are at a point where it is not only possible, but imperative that we facilitate learning environments that are fluid, dynamic, and relevant. None of us go outside and look at a tree and say, “that’s a tree, so that’s science” or, “the sky is blue, so that’s art.”

Our world is a beautiful, complex, and intricate tapestry of learning all in its own right. Why do we believe that we have the ability or the right to box it in behind brick walls and classroom doors in a place called school?

Integrating concepts, topics, standards and assessments is a powerful way to disrupt the typical course of events for our students and to help change the merry-go-round of “school.”

It takes what we do when we open the doors to the real world and places those same practices in our cycles of teaching and learning. So, we can finally remove the brick walls and classroom doors to get at the heart of learning.

So, what is the difference between STEM and STEAM?

STEM represents science, technology, engineering and math. “STEAM” represents STEM plus the arts – humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media.

The main difference between STEM and STEAM is STEM explicitly focuses on scientific concepts. STEAM investigates the same concepts but does this through inquiry and problem-based learning methods used in the creative process.

This looks like groups of learners working collaboratively to create a visually appealing product or object that is based in the understanding of a STEM concept, such as the mathematics of the parabola used to create fine art imagery.

STEAM is not a new concept. People such as Leonardo Da Vinci have shown us the importance of combining science and art to make discoveries. Indigenous Australians also have a long-standing tradition of scientific knowledge passed down through song as a memory system.

So why is STEM and STEAM important in education, more on that after this message from our sponsor…

The pathway to STEAM is exciting but can also be risky without an understanding of what STEAM truly means in both its intention and its implementation. Like its STEM predecessor, STEAM can stop short of its best manifestation without several core components:

  1. STEAM is an integrated approach to learning which requires an intentional connection between standards, assessments and lesson design/implementation
  2. True STEAM experiences involve two or more standards from Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and the Arts to be taught AND assessed in and through each other
  3. Inquiry, collaboration, and an emphasis on process-based learning are at the heart of the STEAM approach
  4. Utilizing and leveraging the integrity of the arts themselves is essential to an authentic STEAM initiative

How to Use STEAM

There are actually 6 steps to creating a STEAM-Centered classroom, no matter what area you teach. In each step, you’re working through both the content and the arts standards to address a central problem or essential question.

What’s great about this process is that you can as easily use it to help plan for a lesson as you can to facilitate the actual learning process in your STEAM classroom. Let’s take a look at each step.


In this step, we’re selecting an essential question to answer or problem to solve. It’s important to have a clear focus on both how this question or problem relates to the STEM and the Arts content areas you’ve chosen.


During the detail phase, you’re looking for the elements that are contributing to the problem or question. When you’re observing the correlations to other areas or why the problem exists, you begin to unearth a lot of key background information, skills or processes that students already have to address the question.


Discovery is all about active research and intentional teaching. In this step, students are researching current solutions, as well as what ISN’T working based on the solutions that already exist. As a teacher, you can use this stage to both analyze the gaps your students may have in a skill or process and to teach those skills or processes explicitly.


This is where the fun happens! After students have dived deep into a problem or question and have analyzed current solutions as well as what still needs addressed, they can begin to create their own solution or composition to the problem. This is where they use the skills, processes and knowledge that were taught in the discovery stage and put them to work.


Once students have created their solution or composition, it’s time to share it. It’s important that the work is presented for feedback and as a way for expression based on a student’s own perspective surrounding the question or problem at hand. This is also an important opportunity to facilitate feedback and help students learn how to give and receive input.


This step is what closes the loop. Students have a chance to reflect on the feedback that was shared and on their own process and skills. Based on that reflection, students are able to revise their work as needed and to produce an even better solution.

Connecting STEAM and Literacy

STEAM’s foundations lie in inquiry, critical thinking, and process-based learning. That is extremely important. The entire idea surrounding STEAM lessons and the STEAM approach is that it’s based around questioning, and really deep questioning. We want to start asking non-Googleable questions.

Inquiry, curiosity, being able to find solutions to a problem, and being creative in the finding of the solutions is at the heart of this approach. This means that the humanities are woven into STEAM just like everything else.

Using STEAM does not mean letting english language arts or social studies go to the wayside.

You can use a STEAM lesson with those ideas, because it’s fundamentally built upon asking really good questions, and then seeking solutions to the problems that are presented in those content areas.

That doesn’t have to just happen in the STEM areas, or in the arts areas with STEM; you can connect all of the humanities through STEAM through the idea that you’re looking for a solution to a very specific problem which comes out of the inquiry process.

But this begs the question: if STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math, what happens to reading and writing? Do we just drop them completely, or do we move to something else and call it STREAM (adding “reading” into the acronym)? And then… aren’t we back to teaching everything?

These are excellent questions. The answers come down to two deep understandings:

Literacy is a part of every content area – always.

You can be literate in math, art, reading, social studies, music and science. Literacy is an action with common components that are embedded into how we consume and share information. As such, it is naturally a part of STEAM.

Intentional selection of naturally aligned standards is key.

STEAM is the intentional alignment of standards within these identified content areas and includes equitable assessment of both areas in the lesson. It’s guided by inquiry and is focused on application, creation and evaluation. Adding another letter isn’t the point.

With those understandings in mind, there are many ways to integrate literacy and STEAM intentionally in your classroom. Here are some examples that you may find helpful in your planning for this year.

Visual Thinking

Utilizing visual thinking is drawing upon the foundation of literacy itself. You can read a piece of art or music, the same way you can read a piece of traditional text. Visual thinking strategies are a terrific way to introduce this concept to your students and to practice literacy across all content areas.

Embodying Text

Being able to make personal meaning requires moving from the abstract to the literal. Many of the STEM areas deal with abstract concepts which are hard to visualize or feel. This can be done quickly and easily through movement. Using dance as a tool to explore a concept and then translate that into a literal interpretation is a form of writing. Just because it’s done with the body doesn’t make it any less of a composition.

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching is all about using comprehension strategies to have formal conversations about text. If the text is a piece of art, or if it’s a scientific finding, the reciprocal teaching strategy will work regardless of content. Here’s the steps you need:

  1. Predict
  2. Question
  3. Clarify
  4. Summarize

Start by asking students to predict an outcome based on a problem, process, or artistic prompt. Then, ask some guiding questions and encourage your students to ask each other questions about the work. Students can then point out elements of the problem, process, or arts prompt that they don’t understand. They can then research answers to these questions and summarize their findings. This strategy is often used to analyze traditional text and is a core component of literacy but can easily be applied to any content area.

Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful,and enjoy hearing about my personal journey.



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Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful and enjoy hearing about my personal journey. Thanks for visiting!

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