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STEM Vs. STEAM: What's the Difference?

Craig Fisher
Feb 1, 2021 4:15:30 PM

Here at, we are counting down to Knackathon 2021, March 17th-19th - the virtual conference on engineering mentorship.  With hundreds of students, great schools, and big-name employers participating, we really hope you, or your STEM or STEAM leaning student can join us.  

STEM education has already proven its worth when it comes to preparing students for 21st-century science and tech challenges. But, it's not the only kid on the block. STEAM education also holds great value in preparing the next generation with the innovative skills to make an impact in these important fields. 

STEM combines science, technology, engineering, and math. STEAM incorporates those same elements while adding the arts to the mix. (Thus, the addition of the "A.") Both education models teach these disciplines as a holistic problem-solving approach instead of separate subjects. 

While the term STEAM may be new to some, the approach has actually been around for a long time.

People such as Leonardo Da Vinci have shown us the importance of combining science and art to make discoveries. Indigenous Australians also have a long-standing tradition of scientific knowledge passed down through song as a memory system. 

STEAM has been a catalyst to re-discover the value of art in science-based education programs. Adding the arts into the learning process creates the opportunity to strengthen our students' abilities to think, create, learn, solve problems, and thrive in the real world. 

What Sets STEAM Apart

Adding the arts to science-based education through STEAM programs adds a new layer of discovery and creativity to integrating processes and expressing information. Art is sometimes viewed as its own separate activity--painting or sculpting in a studio--with little connection to the real world. However, that could not be further from the truth. 

Some say that architecture sits at the exact equilibrium between the arts and STEM, where artistic vision and aesthetic sensibility are brought to life within the constraints of what is structurally and materially possible. Frank Lloyd Wright once said "the mother of art is architecture." Wright credits plain wood blocks as his original material. The blocks, developed in the 1830s by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator and the inventor of kindergarten, were STEAM long before the acronym, helping children learn about geometric forms, mathematics, and creative design. (Forbes)

In addition to such obvious practical applications of STEAM, integrating the arts in education programs brings additional benefits. 

5 Benefits of Exposing Students to the Arts

Including the arts in a holistic way will benefit students, and--by extension--the world. 

1. Arts spark excitement.

As any classroom teacher will tell you, motivating students is no easy task. The best tactic of all is to spark excitement, flipping the switch on their intrinsic motivation. This doesn't happen by standing up in front of the group, talking in a cheery voice, and telling them to "get excited!"

By exposing children to dynamic artistic applications, we tap into their passions and spark their natural curiosity. Once they're excited about the what, teachers are in the perfect position to show them how.   

2. Arts promote empathy.

Experts have long recognized the value of the arts, history, and cultural studies in promoting empathy. When we can connect with our own emotions and relate them to the emotions of others, we're in a much better position to understand, serve, and get along with one another.

With deeper empathy, we can effectively work toward such shared values as diversity, inclusion, and real civic engagement. In addition, we're better equipped to create products and services that meet real human needs. 

3. Arts develop cultural awareness and diversity.  

In our increasingly interconnected world, it's more important than ever to develop a rich appreciation for global arts and cultural expressions. 

Through valuing the global arts, however, we have the chance to learn from the rich diversity of the world. We are stronger, both as individuals and as cultural groups, when we are able to come together. The arts allow us to learn from one another's perspectives and apply the wisdom that we glean within our own contexts. 

4. Arts build confidence.

When it comes to building self-confidence, the arts provide unique avenues by which students can learn to trust themselves.

The arts:

  • Instill pride in a job well done.
  • Increase avenues for self-expression.
  • Teach real-life skills and problem-solving.
  • Provide opportunities for attachment to a community.
  • Allow students to meet challenges and overcome doubt.
  • Focus on developing strength in a process rather than seeking right/wrong answers.

It is perhaps that last point that can make the biggest difference in building confidence. Students with a rigid framework of success and failure, based on whether they're right or wrong, will benefit the most from exposure to the arts.

In focusing on a process of learning rather than seeking a "right answer," students can learn to overcome challenges and failures. As they do, they learn that mistakes can be overcome.  Teach them we can learn from our failures, and that getting something wrong isn't the end of the world. In many cases, it's simply the start of a journey toward a new solution. 

5. Arts-related studies have proven value.

Students with aspirations in the areas of science and technology often assume that they should only focus on subjects that relate directly to those fields. However, it's worth noting that the founders and CEO's of some of the world's major corporations don't just focus on science, math, and technology.

  • YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki majored in history and literature.
  • Slack founder Stewart Butterfield studied English.
  • Airbnb founder Brian Chesky majored in the fine arts.
  • Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma holds a bachelor's degree in English.
  • Logitech chief executive Bracken Darrell also majored in English.
  • Steve Jobs built the Apple brand on a foundation of liberal arts and the humanities.

At this point, it seems clear that both STEM and STEAM programs have brought worth and value to this generation and the one to come. That's why at Knack, we're so proud to be involved.

Come Hack with Us

Join us at our upcoming spring knackathon. We'll be pulling together high school students, college students, engineering pros, founders, thought leaders, open-source contributors, and other engineering and staffing industry veterans.

Together, we'll hack our way through a five-day tour of Serverless, DevOps, Decentralization, and Remote Work Culture. In addition, we'll be giving away sponsorships to some of the most prestigious STEM and STEAM programs in the country. 

Come hack, mentor, learn, and network with us! 

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