Educators should strive to find the teaching/learning method that allows their students to gather the most knowledge in the most effective way. The avenue of learning that works best for students on an individual level could be different for almost every student in the classroom, especially in older grades — some may learn better from taking notes, other from listening to lectures, and others can learn best from hands-on experiences. This idea becomes complicated when it is introduced to students who are at the Early Childhood level. Students at this age may not know all their letters yet, let alone how to take good notes or critically listen to lectures. This is where STEM- and STEAM-based education comes in. Incorporating STEM or STEAM into the classrooms, gives students the opportunity to focus on things that are important while also getting their hands-on experiences that can cement early learning. This paper was written to inform readers about STEM and STEAM education, in hopes to inspire its use in their classrooms. Researchers have found that STEAM is an invaluable part of Early Childhood Education.
What is STEM & STEAM? Where Do They Overlap?
In order to inform and inspire other teachers in the aspects of STEM and STEAM, one must first know what STEM and STEAM educational pathways consist of. White (2014) highlights the definition of the STEM acronym in his opening paragraph, pointing out that the practice is named after its core concepts: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. While this may be the most glaringly obvious definition of the concept, there is much more to it. Before being known as STEM, the practice of focusing on the aforementioned pillars upon which the concept rests, the idea was known as SMET, or Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. While the acronyms for both were fairly new, the idea of using SMET/STEM to challenge students to expand their critical thinking skills, was not.
Several historical events played a part in expanding the interest in STEM. Imagine the Space Race without the study of technology or engineering! In his 2014 article, White goes on to further break down STEM into each piece of the acronym and continue to define it so as to give readers a basic understanding of the subject matter. Science, defined as “the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe,” is based on study, perception, and measurement; Technology is “the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interactions.” These interactions include anything and everything, including other areas of study. Engineering is defined as “the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences … as in … construction,” leaving Math to bring up the rear as “a group of related sciences … concerned with the study of number, quantity, shape, and space” (White 2014, p. 4)
After integrating all of these ideas and principles, students should be encouraged to think more critically, though this may not be the only endgame for professionals who emphatically endorse the collective study. Of course, as students are exposed to STEM and participate in activities and experiments that makes the experience fun, they may consider choosing a professional path that coincides with the concepts they were interested in during their educational journey. White (2014) begins to conclude by mentioning that another goal after the implementation of STEM education is to ensure all people are “technologically literate,” which is a major concern in the fast-paced, technology-based world in which we live today. What better way to ensure this goal is met than to have competent teachers leading the charge? However, when teachers are ill-equipped to take on the challenges of STEM Education, they may unknowingly extend their anxieties to their students or teach the subject poorly due to incorrect preconceived notions in regards to STEM (Gresham 2007; Lee & Ginsburg 2009).
Due to the fact that STEM has so many benefits and is so prevalent in the world today, some may wonder why educators even consider a flip side to the coin. Why fix something that is not broken? As technology continues to develop at faster rates to do things that may have been unfathomable as few as five years ago, is it too far of a stretch to decide that STEM is all students need to study? Many people say yes. Consider for a moment that a teacher decides they want to present the concept of primary and secondary colors to their preschool classroom. This teacher has the option to present this information in any number of ways, including anything from a 45-slide Powerpoint to a small hands on experiment with watercolor paints. While the Powerpoint may give students more information on color mixing, three- and four-year-olds will be more likely to retain the hands-on experiment. This is where STEAM comes into play.
While this educational option is very similar to STEM, the added A (for “Arts”) is what makes the difference, especially for young students. DeJarnette (2018a) encourages the idea that students, especially younger students, can benefit from experiencing STEM with a side of Art and creativity. As younger students mostly learn through play and other creative avenues, STEAM can be seen as the path of least resistance when introducing students to the hefty concepts of STEM. This creative learning experience does not just benefit young children, though. As previously stated, educators and authorities in general have been making a push in recent years to encourage for future careers in one or more of the branches of STEM. By integrating STEAM into the classroom, teachers have the opportunity to offer learning experience to students of any and all ages. As any college student can explain, textbooks and lectures only go so far in teaching students things, especially heavy subjects like engineering. By incorporating more hands-on, creative/artistic experiences into the instructional period, the likelihood of students expressing interest in the field.
Like with any up-and-coming idea in a field, there seems to be a shortage in teacher preparation when it comes to STEAM Education (DeJarnette 2018a). This inadequacy may partially “stem” from the fact that teachers rarely receive enough preparation in the fields of both STEM and STEAM. This insufficiency can cause more problems for teachers (and students, by extension), such as apprehension in teaching which can directly impact students (Gresham 2007). However, when STEAM Education (and teacher education) is done correctly, both students and teachers profit. This margin of profit can be clearly seen through the level of engagement exhibited in the classroom when the content is introduced.
As previously mentioned, STEM and STEAM are actually quite similar, especially in the Early Childhood arena. This similarity might suggest to some that it is the path of least resistance, teeming with the most benefits, and should therefore be the way that school systems around the world pursue educating their students. However, as Henriksen (2014) mentions, this is not often the case, claiming that curriculum-driven districts choke out teachers’ ability to integrate art into their STEM-heavy daily roster. STEM teaches students how to think critically and crack open the secrets of the universe, offering extensive study of just the fields science, math, technology, and engineering, but does not guarantee that the practitioners will immediately rise to the top of their field. In fact, there seems to be a correlation between STEM experts and a knowledge or interest in things that are labeled more creative than practical, such as art and music. In light of this, there must be a “sweet spot” where logic and creativity meet and create a space that is conducive to learning technical concepts, but also allowing for students to explore and get hands-on.
While STEM and its precepts are still relevant in the day and age of today – if not more so in the modern age than it was in years gone by – there is always room for improvement. What is the point of technology if there is no motivation to innovate and create the next new thing? Macdonald, Hunter, Wise, and Fraser (2019) ask this same question in the introduction of their article. They later make the point that in order to include more STEAM-based educational practices within the classroom would require an overhaul of the education system. This study was conducted in Australia, but other sources have also mentioned that widespread implementation of STEAM-based practices in the States would require a lot of effort, and some are unsure if it would be worth it. The biggest gap to bridge in between STEM, STEAM, and a blended practice of the two is the state mandates, requiring certain things to be taught certain ways. As the STEAM initiative gains traction and officials at the state level (both within the United States and in the world as a whole), there is a chance that these reforms may happen, allowing teachers more wiggle room to teach students the concepts they need to know, while also letting them innovate, create, and potentially get messy.
How Can STEM & STEAM Be Implemented in the Classroom?
STEM and STEAM are both relevant for the modern classroom. Both methods have resulted in success with neither seeming to have a significant “leg up” on the other method. As such, there is no “one correct way” for teachers to teach or students to learn as long as the information presented is correct. As STEAM education continues to gain traction in the realm of education, considerations must be made as classrooms potentially move from what may have been an orderly, organized classroom to a classroom with less organization, but more freedom and room to foster creativity. While these changes may be subtle, they are still relevant for students and crucial for the proper implementation and use of STEAM education. Teachers who consider adopting either STEM or STEAM into their classroom must first consider what goes into the implementation of the method, and the effects this method could have on students and their education.
As professionals in the sphere of education continue to consider the implications surrounding different methodologies for presenting education to students, they must also consider the first step for most students on their educational journey. As preschool becomes more popular, these professionals must constantly evaluate what is best for students in this age group. What must these students learn in order to be successful? Which route would be the best to take when trying to impart this knowledge in the simplest way possible? Before students can even step into the classroom to begin this learning process – whatever it may be – teachers must be prepared to present them with this knowledge. Thus, in order for STEM to be successfully integrated into the classroom, the teacher must become the student.
Brenneman, Lange, and Neyfeld (2018) delve into this idea of training teachers in order to properly train students. They state early in the article that not only do math skills that students present in kindergarten set the trajectory for later success, but early science and social studies skills also demonstrate the potentiality for later student success as well. How can we expect students to be successful without giving them a leg to stand on? At the same time, how can we expect teachers to adequately prepare students when the teachers themselves do not have the resources they need to provide high-quality, engaging STEM experiences? The authors suggest a variety of ideas to better prepare teachers for STEM instruction, including workshops, reflective coaching cycles, and professional learning communities.
First and foremost, all information presented to educators must be backed by research. As teachers (and teachers of teachers) learn more information, and as new information becomes relevant – in the fields of math or science, for example – these groups of people should come together and form learning communities. These learning communities can and should be headed by a coach or mentor who encourages those who are still learning and practicing, keeping them encouraged and informed (Brenneman et al. 2018). This is just part of the model discussed in the article, but the connections that can be made to the classroom in just this small part are astounding. Something like this should take place in the classrooms: students should be doing things that research has proven are effective for learning. Students should be allowed to work with others to create discussions that aid in learning. Students should be led by a coach/mentor (their teacher) who knows more than they do and can help guide them throughout the learning experience. In this case, and any case in regards to education, teachers should keep their opinions and attitudes in regards to their teaching content to themselves, rather than broadcasting their distaste of a particular subject (such as math) to their impressionable students (Brenneman et al. 2018; Chen, McCray, Adams & Leow 2014). While these are just a hand-picked selection of ideas from this article, it lists several more ideas and options to help train effective teachers so as to better implement STEM into the classroom.
DeJarnette (2018b) diverted slightly from this train of thought. In this article, she begins by stating the obvious: STEAM takes STEM and adds in art, then lists several benefits to this addition, including things such as diverse learning experiences, exploration of new skills, and enhanced student engagement. One of the biggest ways DeJarnette champions the addition and implementation of STEAM is by simple early exposure (2018b). As young children are practically hardwired for science, STEAM offers teachers an opportunity to build these bridges to connect scientific concepts and vocabulary in a streamlined way. Students in early childhood have the natural inclination to explore and be creative, which is what makes STEAM such a good fit for the early classroom. Having materials that students can use to create and explore is one of the biggest (and easiest) ways to introduce students to the arts.
DeJarnette (2018b) also spends a bit of time in the area of professional development that Brenneman et al. (2018) mentioned, though the ideas included here were slightly different. This section of the article begins with a preface, stating that teachers at the middle and high school level receive training on what could be considered the art of teaching STEM. Early childhood and elementary teachers are at a disadvantage, however, as this subject may not be covered – or covered extensively, to the point teachers know how to teach confidently – in their teacher education program. As previously stated, this lack of knowledge could lead to a dislike of teaching a certain subject, which can then stem into student opinions of these subjects in an almost irreparable ripple effect.
As DeJarnette (2018b) continued to explore this idea, social interactions played a big part in the findings. As students interacted with each other as they completed authentic, engaging activities, the appreciation for STEAM became greater. Teachers were given a workshop opportunity to hone their skills before introducing STEAM elements to their students. After these workshops and the implementation of the STEAM ideals into the classroom, teachers reported that the content of the lessons seemed to be within the realm of student understanding, and also proved more engaging (DeJarnette 2018b). DeJarnette concludes that while teachers gained confidence in their ability to prepare and teach STEAM lessons to students, they still felt like they needed more training or assistance before changing the entire classroom dynamic to one that focused on STEAM rather than STEM, and, as always, more research must be done before any final judgments can be passed.
Shatunova, Anisimova, Sabirova, and Kalimullina (2019) continue in this vein of thinking by stating that including things like art and music can make what would otherwise be boring, somewhat disinteresting information more palatable for students. How many students have learned the Presidents in chronological order because of the song? How many more learned about basic fractions by taking a marker and coloring in portions of a wedged circle and calling it pie? In Russia – where this study was based – teachers take the opportunity to teach lessons relating to technology by incorporating creative opportunities in its stead (Shatunova et al. 2019). In cases like these, “creative spaces” are used to bridge the learning gap. These creative spaces serve to do just as the name suggests – be a space where students are encouraged to be creative. As the study is conducted and later concluded, it is found that creative methods help students better understand the logical concepts and theories of engineering and technology.
Not only will the implementation of this theory require some shifting in the physical classroom to create the creative spaces, it also requires a little bit of work on the students’ end to produce creative spaces within themselves. While STEM and all its technicalities require students to use the “left” side of their brain, which is bursting at the seams with logic, focus, and order, STEAM requires a bit more. A STEAM classroom, overflowing with art and creativity, requires students to be more “right”-brained (Shatunova et al. 2019, p. 133). When accessing the “right” side of the brain, students are tapping into the parts of them that are creative, imaginative, and perhaps even a little spontaneous. Of course, in cases like these, students are not just hurling paint cans at the wall and calling it learning (though I am sure that that particular lesson could teach students about a vast number of things, including emergency phone numbers). As STEAM still relies heavily on STEM, students are using this creativity and imagination to solve logical problems. Thus, when STEAM is implemented into a classroom, the teacher must be sure not to lean too heavily to one side of the spectrum: students must take in a spontaneous yet methodical assortment of information in order to reach their full potential,
Shatunova, Anisimova, Sabirova, and Kalimullina (2019) then begin to expound on the details of this study, citing several countries (the United States, Australia, South Korea, Canada, and Thailand to name a few) have conducted studies on STEAM in the classroom, and most have found that there is an easy link to bridge the gap between STEM and STEAM. They also go on to state that those interested can see the actual need for interdisciplinary approach to education, as demonstrated in a study conducted in 2018. While the information may be applicable to students in elementary and early childhood programs, this particular study was conducted with older students, in secondary schools in Australia, the US, Canada, and Singapore. However, the results of this study documented that the implementation of STEAM into these classrooms resulted in “favorable conditions” when partnered with a trusting student-teacher relationship (Shatunova et al 2019).
Benefits & Drawbacks
In order to claim that STEM and STEAM can be implemented in a classroom with “favorable outcomes,” there must be some kind of proof. This proof comes in the form of many things, including scientific process skills. Kececi, Aydin, and Zengin (2019) published an article on this same subject. They begin by saying, more or less, that technology and the world around us is changing at a pace so fast that we can barely keep up. When students are given the tools they need to succeed, the likelihood of students excelling in rapidly growing fields increases. By introducing students in early childhood to STEM and the concepts that make it up, students are being given opportunities to try these concepts out and learn them before it becomes a chore to do so.
This study, conducted in Turkey, explores the effects of STEM on preschool students’ scientific process skills, which are defined as observing, classifying, measuring, predicting, and inferring. While these skills are not specific to science, they certainly do lend a hand in helping students understand science concepts and ideas more easily. The purpose of this exploration is to better serve teachers and researchers who will later be putting these ideas into practice. The information collected through this study seems like it is a heavy load for students to carry, but the execution and collection of this study included things like building with Legos, chemistry experiments, and egg drops. This further illustrates the fact that learning can and should be fun, especially for younger students.
As the study concludes, Kececi et al. (2019) finishes with the idea that the implementation of STEM ideas in the classroom does indeed help students grow their scientific process skills. The results showed that there was no real difference in the assessment scores between the control and experimental groups of students, but there was a “significant difference” between the pre- and post-study scores. This effectively demonstrates that using fun, engaging experiences can help students learn concepts such as observing, classification, measuring, estimation, and inferring. These early positive experiences can help shape students as they grow; something this simple could inspire them to pursue a lucrative STEM career in the future.
Scientific process skills are not the only area that STEM exists to benefit. In a study conducted in Australia, the authors set out to establish the point that a STEM educational pathway does not serve to benefit only the content areas wherein it is taught (Simoncini & Lazen 2018). Like most things, the ideas taught under the umbrella of STEM can be used in a transdisciplinary model, making neither mutually exclusive to the other. The great difference maker is the opinion of the teacher; when teachers teach what they are supposed to, students learn. When teachers believe in what they are teaching, students are seemingly more receptive, and will likely take in more of the information that will help them as they learn.
STEM encourages students to develop habits that keep the aforementioned scientific process skills sharp. The best way to exercise brain muscles is to use them, so it only makes sense that the continuous use helps cement them in the mind of the students; prediction and observation are some of the biggest components of science that students will use on a regular basis, so they should get regular use. These “habits of mind” as they are called in the article help students develop the skills they need to critically think about any given situation, and potentially find an answer they did not have before. STEM also serves to do the obvious and set the stage for later STEM learning and a potential career, as previously mentioned. Students may already love learning, but STEM can introduce students to a new way of learning that encourages others to join in the fun of it all. Students have a long educational journey ahead of them! They might as well enjoy it as much as they can. Simoncini & Lasen (2018) also mention that the skills students pick up from STEM can help them in other aspects of their education as well. For example, those previously mentioned scientific process skills are not specific to only science. Skills like inference can be used in literacy, while measuring can be used in math.
STEM is not the only educational model around that can benefit both students and teachers. While it is currently the educational model that has the most traction, that does not necessarily mean that it is the best. While STEM allows students the opportunity to think critically and solve problems, that is not all there is to education. Kim and Park (2012, p. 115) introduce their study by mentioning that students should not just be little calculators, but should have the opportunity to experience the world around them and explore their “creative talents capable of producing unique, practical and intelligent values.” The way they attempted to accomplish that in this study was through the use of Rube Goldberg’s Invention. This invention relies on a lot of scientific, mathematical, and technological information in order to “jump start” the device. Rube Goldberg’s Invention exists solely to answer a simple question with the most complicated answer possible, giving students the opportunity to show off their STEM know-how. In order to come up with the most complicated answer to the simple question, students would also have to draw from their reserves of creativity, something that is distinctly STEAM. When students work collaboratively to achieve the goal of finding the world’s most convoluted answer, they also sharpen their communication and social skills while they work.
In this same vein, building inner, ethical qualities that one might not typically see develop from a typical science experiment. As students try and try again to find the complicated answer that actually works to answer the question, they begin to strengthen their patience and focus. Increased ability to focus allows students to remain engaged in the classroom goings-on even if the lesson is less than interesting on that particular day. Rube Goldberg’s Invention also attempts to correct this potential — students remain engaged because they are continuously trying something new and therefore have something constantly new to focus on. Of course, one of the most obvious benefits to STEAM in this course of study is the learning that students will construct in science, technology, engineering, and math (Kim & Park 2012, p. 116).
When most of these studies are conducted, intent on finding the benefits of a certain educational model, the researchers often focus on the academic topics related to the concept. For example, STEM studies would only focus on science, technology, engineering, and math; STEAM studies focus on the aforementioned subjects and art. Rarely, if ever, do these studies consider the academic areas outside of those specific areas of interest. Rarer still is the option for researchers to look at the benefits to a student in areas that may not even pertain to school. In this study, Monkeviciene, Autukeviciene, Kaminskiene, and Monkeviciius (2020) researched the traditional artistic and cognitive competence that one might come to expect from a STEAM study, but they also take other things into consideration. These other things include health, social, and communication competencies.
As the results of this study came in, Monkeviciene et al. (2020) noticed a trend in the information in regards to both teachers and students. In this case, as teachers garnered more experience with a STEAM model, the more they found that it influenced the happenings in their classroom. Experiences were quality and served to encourage student engagement. The study also revealed that the implementation of STEAM ideas also helped teachers learn organizational skills that benefit them both within the classroom and in their “personal” professional lives. Meanwhile, students also reaped the benefits of this study. In comparison to the pre-study assessment, students who had gone through the course of the study scored higher in the selected areas of cognitive and artistic competencies. By the same token, students also did slightly worse in the areas of health and, surprisingly, social competencies. This lack of social capabilities surprised me as the authors later said that “soft” practices (such as problem solving and communication) happened more frequently in the classroom than did “hard” topics (STEM, basically).
These “hard” topics are what tends to turn students away from careers in STEM and towards careers that could be included under the umbrella of STEAM. Yakman and Lee (2012) explore this idea, coming to the conclusion that the reason that people, usually women and minorities, chose to pursue a career that is less influenced by STEM and more influenced by STEAM, allowing them to bypass the difficulties that come with STEM. While this is a benefit for STEAM, it is not one for STEM, which often seems to get the short end of the stick. STEM is often a scary subject for teachers, leading to poor teaching of it in the classroom, which is another drawback for the curriculum (Chen et al. 2014; Gresham 2007). Likewise, STEAM is an up-and-coming, constantly developing idea. While it may help students learn STEM concepts in new, artistic ways, there still is not a lot of research on STEAM and the effects it has on students (Spyropoulou, Wallace, Vassilakis, & Poulopoulos 2020).
As researchers continue to study STEAM, the remaining questions surrounding the idea will be answered, but there may be too many of these questions for teachers and administration to fully commit to implementing STEAM into classrooms on a widespread scale. While we have some idea of the benefits to a STEAM classroom (such as the aforementioned ease of teaching hard skills, competence development, and enhanced environmental awareness, to name just a few!), researchers have not yet discovered any drawbacks to the full implementation of STEAM. No educational initiative can cover all of the bases that need to be covered as there are so many things that teachers must teach, and thus teachers must consider what might be falling through the cracks as they focus on pushing artistic experiences in the classroom. Questions remain on all sorts of subjects: do STEM/STEAM programs work better in a rural setting, or more urban? Or neither? What could be considered too much art in STEAM? How do teachers create a balance between each branch of STEM or STEAM, without relying too heavily on one subject or another? As research continues, hopefully the amount of answers will outweigh the amount of questions presented.
There is no one right way to teach students. STEM and STEAM programs have ideas that can benefit students in obvious and not so obvious ways, but could also have repercussions that teachers and other authorities may not be aware of. As more research is conducted into the subject of STEM, STEAM, and everything in between, teachers should be a part of it. This could range from trying out a new way of teaching an old science concept, or actually implementing a STEM/STEAM-based curriculum into the classroom, if administration allows it. In any case, teachers should be given the freedom to be informed and inspired in the way they teach so they can pass the torch of information and inspiration to those who really need it – their students.
* This paper received the 3rd Award at the 2021 Rockford University Undergraduate Student Humanities Conference “Words, Ideas, and Cultures” held by the Department of Languages, Philosophy, Religion, and Cultures on April 24, 2021.
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