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Full STEAM ahead?

March 9, 2021

STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Maths. Or, sometimes STEM, or sometimes the "A" is for Architecture (which many believe is part of the arts anyway), or the "E" becomes both Entrepreneurship and Engineering. One thing we are really great at as humans is not agreeing on a whole lot.

But what we do agree on is that these things are all vitally important to our future. It is quite typical for job growth forecasts to look only at STEM, despite the overwhelming evidence of the contribution of the Arts to our economies. Reports have been consistent over the last two decades that the growth of STEM jobs has been exponential, and even in these uncertain times, STEM jobs are growing faster than any other profession.

But in the rush to incorporate STEAM more explicitly in schools, there is a lot of disagreement and criticism. By adding Arts to STEM, are we saying that science isn't inherently creative, and that only artists carry the "creative gene"? Is art in there because we have forgotten how to value it inherently and can only seek to commoditize it?

Is STEAM education's aim to increase diversity in technical professions where women and BIPOC are hugely underrepresented based on a genuine desire for equity, or is it more tokenistic in aiming at grant funding where diversity is a prerequisite?

Phew. There, we got a lot of the criticisms out in the open, and there is always an element of truth in most of these, but it is never the whole story. At NEO Academy, we are realists, but also optimists. We work with education professionals daily, and while there will always be criticism around change, and always people working for their own aims and benefit, we believe that STEAM is a huge force for good in education. But why is that so, and how do we give it the best chance of success?

STEAM jobs and the reality check

Firstly, we need to look at the drivers of STEAM initiatives. The jobs are there, and they are well paid, but they are actually not where most STEAM graduates end up. Most graduates in these fields do not actually work in these fields. The reason is most likely huge competition at the graduate level, meaning most have to go on to do advanced degrees to reach those top jobs.

However, the other interesting thing is that there is relatively little unemployment among STEAM graduates. They do get jobs, but just not in the thing they studied. This would support the growing number of commentators telling us that "every job is a STEAM job" as technology evolves and the skills from STEAM subjects become more in demand than ever before. Problem-based learning and design thinking are going to be in much demand in the years to come.

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STEAM skills are future skills

Remember way back in paragraph one, we mentioned that "entrepreneurship" sneaked in to share the "E" with Engineering? Well, it belongs there, according to the hugely innovative and fast-growing STEAM School initiative, where the sciences are combined with entrepreneurship and a culture of discovery and inquiry.

As we wrote earlier, entrepreneurial education is such a critical asset for learners who will need these skills in the future. Adaptability, resilience, innovation, planning, and collaboration, all these things are embedded in entrepreneurship and go hand in hand with the sciences. What is innovation without application? What is project-based learning without value creation?

Entrepreneurship belongs in STEAM, whether a learner chooses to start their own company, or simply build the skills inherent in entrepreneurship, to apply to whatever they please. The future will dictate what they do with it, the least we can do in education is open up the opportunity to learn it.

Disciplines like engineering are a practice of inquiry, and of drawing on creativity, iteration, and knowledge to solve problems. The humanism, personal skills, and practical social value brought by entrepreneurship make it a very happy marriage; so much so, that they can even share a letter without arguing.

STEAM diversity matters

Beneath all the articles like "diversity improves performance" and how having a diverse workforce improves your bottom line by 19% etc., there is a fundamental fact. Diversity matters in its own right, and not because of the way it improves performance or profit.

We all have the ability to think aspirationally, but it is often buried under the same old patterns we see repeated in front of us. As a young woman, or someone with a disability, or BIPOC students, it helps so much to see someone who looks like us in the place we want to be.

The media has a huge role in this, as does industry. With amazing organizations like Women in STEAM and STEAM diversity shining a light on role models we can relate to, this helps enormously. The fact that many of the NASA team who landed Perseverance on Mars were women and people of color did not go unnoticed, and the hashtag #stemisforeveryone took a noticeable boost on Twitter.

But aspiration only takes you to a door that has to be unlocked from the other side. Visualizing yourself as a scientist or an engineer is half the story, but equity of opportunity must be of substance. This is where we come back to the criticism of "tokenistic" focuses on diversity and inclusion simply to access grants, funding, and initiatives that list it as a prerequisite.

But surely, the fact that these things are a prerequisite is cause enough for hope? We cannot always know people's intentions, but if diversity must be incentivized before it is normalized, then that is where we are. The important thing is that opportunity is there, and everyone from NASA down to grassroots public libraries are riding that STEAM train to a more representative workforce.

There is a lot of work to do before the STEAM world is one of pure meritocracy, and we leave inequity, harassment, implicit bias, and all of the many other barriers to progress in the past where they firmly belong. We can do it. STEAM teams solve problems.

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It's all in the method

STEAM is talked about everywhere, and it's actually quite easy to understand why some say it's just a "fad". Teachers are used to a slew of new initiatives arriving at the door on a weekly basis. The inescapable truth, however, is that STEAM education, like anything else, can be done well, or...not so well.

Young learners begin by learning through play, and it is a sad fact of our education systems that the culture of learning through discovery suddenly stops, and is "taught" instead. Lego understands this: "play" is not just for children. STEAM education is all about discovery.

Solving problems, drawing on skills that cross subject lines, test team dynamics, and throw up frustrating dead ends that can only be turned into a success by someone who is passionately engaged in making it work. That means engagement, in learner-directed passion projects where even the setbacks are part of the fun.

STEAM needs to be in elementary school, embedded right from the start and feeding seamlessly from play to iteration, discovery to reflection. It is only a fad if we make it a fad; tacking it onto the edge of one subject or as an afterthought to another. Equally, a failure to bridge the gap between STEAM learning and STEAM pedagogy will leave teachers feeling undersupported and the initiative can quickly become a burden.

We would like to learn more about this. If you are involved in implementing STEAM in your curriculum or learning design, we would love to chat and share your insights with our network. Please do reach out and connect, and check back to our LinkedIn page later this week for a #NEOchats on this important topic!

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