Why put the ‘A’ in STEAM?

Despite an element of moral panic, there is well-founded concern in Anglophone countries about a decline in the science and mathematics skills of students. International studies such as TIMSS and PISA bear out some of this decline, none more starkly than the PISA mean scores for Scotland and Australia:

This has prompted discussion from politicians and policymakers focused on so-called on STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Such discussion betrays the instrumental view of education that many policymakers hold; a view that sees education purely as training for the workplace and meeting the demands of workplace skills shortages. Not only is this myopic, it doesn’t actually fix the problem that has been identified.

Many STEM initiatives are superficial and silly – like the Australian government’s notorious STEM apps. They operate under the assumption that provoking short-term situational interest by, for example, asking a scientist to speak about their work or showing a cool demonstration, will lead to a long-term personal interest in the subject. Such activities probably help, but they don’t really take into account the students’ self-efficacy; their feelings of competence in a subject area. Self-efficacy is associated with motivation in STEM subjects. Most people assume an ‘interest-first’ model where an interest in a particular subject provokes a desire to work hard in that subject which then develops self-efficacy. However, the reverse ‘competence-first’ process is also plausible, where increased feelings of competence lead to a greater level of motivation.

The interaction probably works both ways but there are some hints that competence-first is more important in early maths education. If true, we should focus more on effective teaching of maths and science and less on gimmickry.

In some ways, STEM is an odd basket of subjects. Engineering is barely taught in schools because the fundamentals rely on physics and mathematics. Traditionally, we teach students these fundamentals first before they develop specialisms at university. This is because we view these disciplines hierarchically. However, many initiatives seeks to involve students in solving ‘real world’ engineering problems as a way of promoting STEM. This is again based upon an interest-first view that if students see the relevance of STEM to everyday life then they will be motivated to study it.

There are many risks to adopting such an approach. Chief among these is the risk that students may not develop self-efficacy as a result and may become demotivated. We know, for instance, that problem-based teaching methods are not optimal for students learning new concepts so we either need to deliver explicit instruction prior to problem solving or reduce the complexity of the problem solving and run the risk of students concluding that this is not the real-world experience that they had been sold.

Far from being the solution to our downward trend, the narrative around STEM might actually be contributing to it. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence embodies many trendy notions around real-world problem-solving and yet Scotland is seeing a decline in its STEM results.

To confound the issue further, some folks have decided to put an ‘A’ in ‘STEM’ to create ‘STEAM’. The ‘A’ stands for ‘Art’ or maybe ‘Arts’. Depending on your source, it could refer to the addition of a fairly contained set of notions around visual art and design or it could represent the arts more generally. In the case of the former, you often hear reference to ‘design thinking’ as some kind of desirable skill to develop, although I doubt it is anything like the generic skill that people imagine. In the latter case, there is very little in an academic curriculum that would not be covered by STEAM. Which takes the focus away from considering the selection curriculum content and much more towards teaching methods.

Because STEAM seems to prioritise certain styles of teaching such as Project-Based Learning. Project-based learning has been a central component of the progressive education agenda since at least as far back as William Heard Kilpatrick’s 1918 essay on The Project Method. Even so, there is little evidence for its effectiveness, despite the grandiose claims that are often made. A recent Education Endowment Foundation trial of Project-Based Learning found a potentially negative impact on literacy, although this finding was compromised by a high drop-out rate from the study. So it either doesn’t work or schools find it really hard to do. Either way, project-based learning is not promising.

STEAM’s old-fashioned progressivist agenda is only enhanced by its focus on collaboration, critical thinking and so on; the misnamed ’21st Century Skills’. Again, skills like critical thinking are not generic and there is little evidence that they can be developed through STEAM approaches. The claims made are ideological rather than based upon evidence.

So I think that STEAM is a cipher. It appeals to an anxiety about STEM education but then subverts it to call for old-fashioned progressive education. I suggest taking the ‘A’ back out of it, and maybe the ‘E’ and the ‘T’ too. That way, we may focus on the effective teaching of science and mathematics instead. This is the best way to arrest any decline.

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18 Comments on “Why put the ‘A’ in STEAM?”

  1. Felicity says:

    I think people like acronyms and STEAM sounds cool because it’s subconsciously associated with the steampunk aesthetic. Just my crazy opinion.

  2. goddinho says:

    What if the A were ‘Arithmetic?’

  3. Gale Morrison says:

    Agree with nearly every word. I founded a STEM parent advocacy group for my school district in PA. Foundational math and science is our highest priority, and our mantra is “for every student of ever ability.” But I would quibble with the remark that students don’t benefit from hearing (in person, face to face) from scientists and engineers and other adults, including carpenters and electricians and plumbers and nurses, who use math and science daily in their careers.

  4. Stan says:

    A more cynical view might say it is about money. The A gives another group the justification for extra funding to keep the steam up or alternatively it gives a government more scope to add funds already being spent to a category that it claims will address some issue.

    All government spending on a new item is either new taxes, new debt, reallocation or renaming. Where it is reallocation it is worth knowing where from.

  5. lanewalker says:

    I hope you don’t mind if I jump in. STEM integration in algebra is my niche, and my approach is twofold: 1) connect thought processes from algebra to thought processes used outside the classroom and 2) broaden the definition of STEM skills to include the 4C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Published here: http://scholarworks.umt.edu/tme/vol14/iss1/23/

    • Stan says:

      Greg,
      It would be great if you had time to review the linked document here. It seems like an evidence based case for PBL.

      • lanewalker says:

        I had to do a study in response to a grant I received in April 2016. I surveyed my disaffected upper level students with respect to their intended career goals in fall 2016. Similar to the NC study I cited, my students showed statistically significant shifts in career goals in just 3 months. I didn’t change much in the content, just pointed to the thought process connections and careers associated with them: test engineering, queuing analysis, systems admin, logistics management…and many careers we don’t often thing of as STEM, like human resource management. When 2nd semester came around and the required curriculum was largely memorized, the effort levels decreased. Some of that was likely “senioritis,” but I believe most of it was lack of relevance.

  6. John Harkins says:

    This assessment assumes STEM is taught by educators. That is the problem period. We need practitioners/mentors to inspire students in the classroom.

    • Chester Draws says:

      It’s a whole pile easier to inspire students with a love of your subject if you teach the best bits of it. And the best bit of teaching Mathematics is not all the applied “investigative” stuff. The best bit is teaching the beauty and elegance of pure Maths.

      So if you do want teachers to inspire their students (a policy I am wary of, btw) then you should allow them to teach the traditional curriculum. Don’t entangle Maths with having to be “relevant”. Don’t spoil beautiful Physics with the need to do tedious group work. Don’t ruin Chemistry be insisting that it have anything to do with the words “sustainable” or “environmental”.

      • Stan says:

        It is fascinating the disconnect between what kids who are interested in a topic study and what people who want to get them interested propose. From Lane Walker’s link above “Embedding tasks that highlight ways data is mined from private individuals and how that data is organized and used would likely be of interest to many students.”

        Find me a book or website used by high school math enthusiasts that spends time on data mining and I’ll donate $100 to the charity of your choice. My bet is they are far more likely spending time looking at whether a needle dropped a floor will cross a line.

        Similarly I suspect the idea that dieticians spend their days solving linear equations will fall flat with the first student that has a parent who is a dietician.

  7. Mitch says:

    Once again I think it comes down to people using words for different things as it suits them.
    I think the A comes from people thinking of STEM as ‘multi-disciplinary projects’ so they think it is important that people add that ‘creativity’ integral with the current IT industry (despite the fact that multidisciplinary teams rarely means that individuals in that team are multidisciplinary).
    Whereas I was supportive of the increase focus on STEM because I always thought of STEM as synonymous with what was probably called ‘quantifiable reasoning’ 30 years ago (with HASS = old ‘verbal reasoning’). So if you look at STEAM from my point of view it appears like me tooism and a step in the wrong direction as it is painfully obvious that it is the STEM part that we are struggling in

  8. Iain Murphy says:

    Greg I agree with you that a good idea can be made bad by letting politicians, committees and the education business near it.

    But please don’t dismiss STEM because of that or bias towards the joys of “pure” mathematics. Many students have no interest in academic puzzles and solving problems that occur in even the best run Maths and Science class. They might become engaged by a teacher that has a passion for maths and/or science but that is elusive.

    For many teachers (me included with my background in engineering and tinkering) STEM offers the opportunity to use our passions to teach. To create a context in which learning can occur. Students with no interest in trigonometry in the maths classroom engage strongly with it when it’s the roadblock to finishing their construction project.

    Now will they do well on a PISA test or any other test, probably not. But can they build something useful, something beautiful, something new that uses those skills, hell yes.

    Which is more important? I guess that’s the debate that should be had.

  9. lanewalker says:

    Stan, Back in my early years, secretarial skills were the foot in the door from where a company would pay for college classes. Today, many doors can be opened by computer programming skills or well developed 4C’s. None of those require advanced math. Having taught at a university and at a community college, I found the trouble to be that too many students arrive with little more than a history of passing math classes by memorizing and confusing procedural skills. Colleges in the US are independent so what is required for math varies widely, even with courses by the same names. Most students have to at least pass (or obtain prior credit for) “College Algebra,” and the success rates have been abysmal for as long as I can remember. Some colleges are working on it (remedial classes and support labs) with some success. A few colleges have found good success by offering focused algebra classes that are more helpful for different majors. The big picture is that students who have strong numeracy and problem solving skills tend to do very well, so they can get by on their ACT scores, local placement scores, AP credit, etc. Fraction skills (and long division) are very strong predictors of success with algebra: Foundations for Success, US Dept of Ed; also R. S. Siegler, G. J. Duncan, P. E. Davis-Kean, K. Duckworth, A. Claessens, M. Engel, M. I. Susperreguy, M. Chen. Early Predictors of High School Mathematics Achievement. Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612440101

    When students understand that the math they learn is useful in real life, they understand why it is worthwhile to put forth the effort needed to learn it. When they see math as irrelevant, they tend to be less motivated. As a math teacher, I often feel overwhelmed with the responsibility for helping students to understand what is at stake.


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