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STEAM on the Rise: The Growing Importance of Arts Education


A long-time divide has existed between right-brained and left-brained folks, the artsy kids and the math nerds, the liberal arts majors and, well, everyone else. Traditionally, the subjects involving the left side of the brain are favored, and an arts education is the first thing to be cut from elementary and secondary school programs. Throughout the 21st century, STEM educations – curriculum based around science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – have been greatly supported, applied, and even federally funded.

Kids brain drainImage Source: David Horsey, Seattle pi blog.

It is likely that a STEM education will hold great value for the future careers of students (although there is some debate about that), as well as for technological and medicinal developments that would benefit the rest of society. However, a STEM curriculum is not necessarily well-rounded in its approach to education, as it lacks the imagination, free thinking, and ability to self-express that an arts education enables.

Enter in the idea of STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics. Yes, STEAM is the new STEM, and a lot of people are getting on board.

Here is the breakdown of the logic:

  • Arts education aids in developing creativity
    • Creativity is essential to innovation
      • Innovation is key to developing new industries in the future
        • New industries are the foundation to economic well-being

According to this logic, the future of our economic well-being hinges upon the creative, artistically-educated minds of today’s students.

stem v steam

Image Source: Power Automation Systems.

A friend of mine is a second grade teacher here in Minneapolis and uses the arts often to teach her students. During a science lesson on the motion of molecules, she decided it was time to switch it up and get her 8 year olds dancing. The students were split into groups and instructed to create a short dance for the different states of molecules (quick chemistry recap: molecules can be in the form of a solid, liquid, or gas. Solid molecules are densely congregated and move slowly, liquids have a bit more breathing room and movement, and gases are spread out and able to move with great freedom). Now, you can imagine the students dancing as solid molecules by standing right next to each other and moving in slow motion, or darting across the room with wild and sporadic dance moves to represent the gas molecules. The students learned a new chemistry concept through creative thinking, and they reinforced it with physical movement. Not to mention, I’m sure some giggles were involved too.

Okay, so many the future of our economic well-being is not hinging upon having kids dance like gas molecules, but incorporating creative learning mechanisms into the STEM subjects engages the brain in a different, more complex, way.

STEAM!Image Source: The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The argument that the arts and sciences should remain separate misses the point. These contrasting subject fields do not need to be in opposition as STEAM is not about cultivating more artists while taking away from STEM subjects. STEAM is about using the arts to enhance STEM skills. STEAM focuses on people rather than just the subject, and the element of arts brings out individuality and creative thinking. A STEAM education does not singularly teach each of these subject areas; instead, a STEAM approach integrates these different subjects, creating a more interdisciplinary and connected curriculum.

matha and artGeometry with a Splash of Art. Image Source: Literacy Loves Company.

STEAM educations are gaining greater traction and receiving more and more support. Meghan Reilly Michaud, an art teacher at Andover High School in Massachusetts, created a petition in 2012 that asked Congress to add the arts to their federally-funded STEM programs. Her district, Andover Public Schools, is greatly supportive of STEAM, and has created a 10 year plan with implementing STEAM education as its primary goal. Andover is just one example of a school system that has prioritized arts integration into their curriculum, and districts across the country are doing the same.