Finally the “E” in STEM and STEAM is addressed. It needs attention!

urlAnyone who has read my blog posts knows I adamantly and passionately promote STEM/STEAM learning. My complaint, as I immerse myself into the middle school curriculum, is that there is science and math and yes, they use technology, but where’s the engineering? I am bringing the arts and design into all the work we do. I have discovered no one ever really talks about engineering. What is it?  How you do it? Have a problem? Let’s solve it!

I read this article  this morning by Dr. James Catterall of UCLA entitled Getting Real about the E in STEAM. It is HERE He poses every question I have and I felt so happy that someone else is paying attention. We are promoting, pushing and advocating STEM education, but are we really understanding what it means?  Do we automatically assume that engineering is a college discipline and K-12 students won’t get it so why teach it? It comes back to the same ideas-is STEM a program or curriculum or is it a pedagogy through which we demonstrate and learn?

You probably know what I think because I have said it before. What is STEM? STEAM? It is a way of integrating various subjects through inquiry and experience so that students have an understanding and practical knowledge. That is pedagogy or way of learning, not a curriculum or program.

Schools all teach Mathematics and Science and most have the use or integration of technology in both instruction and student work. So all but the “E” are always present. That existence does not indicate that there is a blending of these disciplines or places where their use and overlap is practically used.  Yes, STEAM or the idea of STEAM is to better the understanding of science and mathematical concepts and introduce students to practical problem solving through experience or engineering tasks. This opportunity is available for all age groups where traditional fact oriented rather than concept oriented learning is not available to younger students because it may be too complex. The idea is to introduce age appropriate concepts and build on those concepts as students mature and can comprehend. Yes, STEAM encourages and demonstrates the importance of design, but not just in the sense that you make things. One can make things without ever understanding or focusing on design.

An excellent STEM lesson is to design a functional bridge-this is now new. There are many competitions for all age students to do this. Most often it will include design. But with the aesthetic appeal of the bridge building comes the function of it. It must be weight-bearing.  You need to understand math and physics on some level to be successful at this bridge building. These concepts are presented and as students grow, they can make their structures more complex.  I have always thought the same thing with building and designing a yo-yo. You can get the parts and design your yo-yo, analyze what works and what doesn’t, and over years, the aerodynamic concepts taught will grow. At the same time, the yo-yo can be colorful and eye-appealing. So, the concepts of using the arts to help understand math and science is not new. It is well-founded and it works. We just need people to incorporate these skills into lessons that are homogeneous and do not overtly separate the tasks. Students need to learn that  engineering is a method to solve problems.

So, all that being said, we are back to where is the “E” in STEM or STEAM?  The world has recently embraced the need for STEM education. No one discusses whether we include E or how we do it. I know from my own work, I constantly must make a conscious effort to include design and problem solving, the mothers of the “E” in STEAM. It is not present otherwise in the curriculum. The curriculum to-date is designed to measure tangibles with right or wrong answers. Critical thinking and problem solving as goals inherently do not have one answer. I believe that we want to teach our children these skills, and that we must teach them these skills. Having a great idea, developing it, and then refining it to make it better based on what works and what doesn’t work is the essence of innovation. Children are innately creative in this way if we let them feel comfortable with experimenting, and perhaps failing, creativity and innovation will be the result of their learning.

I endorse the E in STEAM. I applaud it and offer it at every opportunity. Have I sold it to all stakeholders?  Well, probably not. There is still our system which demands that we produce stuff or have something concrete to show for our efforts. Measuring the intangible still remains a hard sell. I believe in what I offer to students. They do make things, but in doing so, I do not consider that the ultimate outcome. As a musician for many years, I learned that nothing is ever the same twice and one learns from everything one does. That is my message. Don’t go through the motions. Savor the experience.url


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  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am currently working with elementary aged homeschool students. We have been building a variety of things from index card towers, to zipline carriers, to structures made from straws (to name a few of our projects). I provide the students with materials choices, and time to build, test, and revise. We discuss the challenges and successes afterwards. It’s been really fun! Students often tell me it’s their favorite class. Previously I taught a class called the science in toys, gizmos, and gadgets. In that class I had planned two weeks worth of activities (we meet an hour a week) about toys that spin. We began by building spinning tops from Legos. This was a really engaging and motivating activity as the students played around with various spinning top designs. We ended up continuing to study and create toys that spin for 6 weeks. For some kids tinkering is motivated by their desire to improve their idea. For other kids tinkering is a lesson in persistence that is very beneficial. Unfortunately my own science education consisted primarily of reading textbooks and answering questions. As an elementary educator with a bent for the arts I have come to STEAM with a design oriented mindset. And I’m having a wonderful time learning the science along with my students.

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