The Pressure to STEM or STEAM

Erin Lark

So is it STEM or is it STEAM?

I’m not attempting a definitive answer.  Instead I have some arguments, messages about togetherness, and a hope you’ll throw in your two cents.

First, a story.

My goal is to never be the smartest person in a room and with a strong deference for the brilliance of children my day job fits that bill and then some.  In addition to the wondrous learnings from students, I am also blessed with an extensive network of collegial influence that consistently expand my thinking...until one day last year.

In discussing statewide efforts around STEAM, one arguably well-entrenched educator strongly suggested I stick to using STEM as industry professionals might otherwise be confused - and what does one little letter matter, anyway?

I admit, I caved for the project.  Reconsidering my attachment to acronyms, the overall philosophical playground, my role as a “STEM teacher” and my own experience with imposter syndrome, I let someone define my relationship with interdisciplinary teaching and learning.  This, like all times when you silence that inner voice, led to a building frustration and ultimately a question. How does education jargon, such as acronyms which become nouns and sometimes verbs, inhibit the very cause(s) it’s designed to support?

Rather than harp on our collective use and abuse of terms such as intentional, empower, and rigor, I asked my students what they think about the STEM vs. STEAM debate.  When you want to know how your message is reaching your audience, it makes sense to query your clients.*

Why the A   

Watch any of the Apple events, especially the product reveals, from the last decade and you’ll have your answer.  Whether you call it art or aesthetics, when products look good the market responds differently.  Talking about user experience is a real world application of skills that requires considering customer perception of products.

On a similar note, consider why the world continues to revere German engineering long after its heyday during the industrial revolution.  Humans appreciate innovation for form in addition to function and any product which fails to address the physical interests, the user’s experience, of a prototype neglects an essential aspect of consumerism and humanity at its core.

Quote from Student: "Sometimes when we learn everything together it's more obvious"

Look to the Standards

What I love about the NGSS is their inclusion of and outright directives toward interdisciplinary standards.  You can’t science without math, you can’t read without write, you can’t social studies without science and round we go again.  

When we limit our experiences and cut clear boundaries, we decrease student exposure to sense-making opportunities and potentially hamper their ability to experience problems as adults encounter them.  Rarely do you cross through a sea of offices and hear “Well Lauren, my project input stops here as I only do calculations, you are the applications person. When you finish, pass it along to Emilio to write up the paper as I know communication isn’t your job.”  Life doesn’t work that way so school should echo that reality.

Quote: "It's like when you try to explain to the other group what you did. More words don't help, try a picture."

So why not an R for Reading...

...or another S at the end, or… to be transparent, this is the hard one for me.  As a die-hard integrator, I want to play in the interdisciplinary sandbox with everyone.  

I am lucky to work in a great place; much of my teaching is part of interdisciplinary instruction.  My colleagues bend over backwards to collaborate on rich tasks that cross classrooms in addition to subjects.  That said, if I made an acronym from all the classes of our average seventh grader it would be some iteration of SRMSPLDS - utter nonsense.  I have to ask - do we reach a tipping point within integration when more becomes less?

One solid discussion point comes from this post in which the author suggests that some subjects are a natural underpinning of STEM work, such as the language arts.  Reading and communication are essential in most courses and we while we often take that learning for granted, students likely use those skills every day in school.  This is not necessarily true with arts and aesthetics, fields that in many states are barely (if at all) funded. In this light, the A could be a temporary inclusion until one day it is as natural a practice in STEM (and school budgeting) as writing and reading.

Quote: "I think you are assuming that students worry about what those things mean. Call it what you want, we'll learn anyway.

Title or Not

Long ago before you knew you were doing learning, when your brain first noticed and started categorizing colors, calculated that there was more or less of something, and put two blocks together, the lack of a label did not diminish your experience.  Perhaps, in fact, the freedom from calling what you were doing anything at all made the most room for essential exploration.

While we get distracted by the deep woods of lingo, children are learning -or not- regardless. If STEM or STEAM is the crux of conversation, I will challenge myself and others to use neither, focus on data about student learning, and move forward.  Otherwise my students will likely leave me behind.

Quote from Student (Kaitlyn)

Only More Questions

When I gave into this argument about acronym use, I gave up on a piece of my instructional ownership.  If we box what we do, say, and think into a culturally-programmed language we limit translation abilities. As folks in an industry with incomparable reach, I question the often accepted yet bemoaned practice of buzzword obsession.  Rather than latch onto the next call for grit/agency/flipped experiences, I’m questioning the purpose for our word choice.

Who benefits from these terms?  

When we function under labels, do we cease to personally explore definitions?

How do families interpret Ed speak - and should they have to?

When is the use of lingo for efficiency sake balanced with a need to unpack blindly-accepted terms?

When discussing a popular term (e.g. STEM), how can we support those seeking clarity and expansion?

In the debate of STEM vs. STEAM, I’m not certain of a winning side. What is successful, however, is the promotion of student access to increasingly inclusive educational experiences.  Whatever you may call this learning at you school, may the endeavor find success.

*Quotes are from students between the ages of 12 and 15 and the author is lucky to learn from them.

  • College and Career Readiness
  • Mathematics
  • Next Generation Science Standards
  • STEAM
  • STEM

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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.