STEAM: It’s not about the tech skills, it’s about the context.

When I tell new friends what I do for a living, here’s what I say:

“I design summer camps that teach kids and teens things like game design and programming”.

When I go to conferences and meetings and tell other professionals in education and edtech, this is what I say:

“I design and implement tech education curriculum in the form of week-long courses, that teach game design, computer science, and app development using project-based and design thinking learning models. We also increasingly work with schools to help them improve STEAM offerings in their coursework.”

Like any industry, education is fraught with buzzwords, acronyms, and fashionable jargon that comes and goes. Maybe you know what they mean, maybe you have no idea, but I’d like to take some time to explain what they are, where they come from, and what they mean to me and to DMA.

STE(A)M

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. You may also hear STEAM, which adds Art and Design to the equation.

Where it comes from.

Many people interpret a STEM initiative as a push to get schools to teach these subjects more. While many students are missing the opportunity to be properly exposed to these subjects, topics like Science and Math are well established, and almost all students take classes in these subjects through high school.

The argument for STEM is that too few students go on from high school to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields. The US Department of Education has set a goal of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these fields to meet the growing need for workers with these skills.

Department of Education Projected STEM Jobs through 2020.

Projected increase in STEM jobs by the U.S. Department of Education through 2020.

One major contributor to this problem is the lack of diversity in these fields, where women, Latinos, African-Americans, people with disabilities, and first-generation Americans are severely underrepresented.   

Adding Art and Design to the equation, STEAM is the idea that although the subjects covered by STEM are the foundations of innovation that are important to the economy, Art and Design are just as important to success in the 21st century. The idea of STEM to STEAM is championed by the Rhode Island School of Design.

Why it’s important

Sure, being proficient in some aspect of everyone’s new favorite acronym will help you land a job, stabilize the economy, and drive success across the nation. However, I think an education with successfully integrated STE(A)M elements helps build better learners in all subjects and disciplines.

I think that the typical approach to teaching today doesn’t necessarily have a content problem, but rather a context problem. Students rarely get a chance to apply the knowledge they are being taught into building things and solving problems which feel authentic. Children live in a media-rich world of games, film, and a never-ending supply of content. But in school, they are asked to write essays, geometric proofs, and read books that can be incredibly hard to relate to.

While the learning objectives of typical school assignments are important, we are asking students to use approaches different than the way they normally consume information. If we could instead challenge students to create content that explores important ideas using tools and formats they are familiar with, they can better put things into context, while leveraging their intrinsic desire to create as a motivator.

While this may sound great, one of the reasons students rarely get a chance to explore topics in creative ways is because schools and teachers are not equipped to support students in producing relatable content. Most teachers are not computer scientists, game designers, or filmmakers. So while getting students to pursue learning STEAM subjects is important, one of the important challenges will be to bring those that are already proficient in these skills back into education as teachers and faculty.

Hopefully, this article helps bring some context to why you hear the STE(A)M acronym so often. While the STEAM initiative is important to the future in ensuring we can build a strong economy and industry, it also offers an opportunity to re-engage students in contexts they want to engage with, allowing them to explore topics and ideas that otherwise might seem unimportant or stale. It’s an expansive idea and it comes with a host of challenges, but overcoming challenges is what learning is all about.

Shane White

Shane White is the Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Digital Media Academy. He is responsible for the development of courses in the realms of Programming and Game Design, as well as defining and implementing DMA’s learning models of Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and Authentic Creation. He’s above average at Ultimate Frisbee and is very below average at completing jumping puzzles in Minecraft..