The Difference of STEM vs. STEAM

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Maybe your child's school sent home some great information about how they are updating their curriculum to match the latest standards in science, all in an effort to improve their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teaching. 

Or maybe you are glad that your kids are taking part in new STEM classes at school. Or maybe your kid isn’t into STEM subjects, and you wonder if they can get a quality education for their future that they will find interesting. Above all, you want to know that your child's school is taking steps to offer your child a top-quality education. 

First, STEM was being promoted as the important subjects needing new emphasis in schools. Then, suddenly, STEAM became a new acronym promoting the same type of skills. The added "A" is for art, meant to show an emphasis on using creativity and design principles.

While the original acronym of its kind, STEM implied that a program was the best that science education a school could offer, but now you are reading about how STEAM is better. Or that schools need to move away from STEM and towards design and innovation, or add music to get STEMM or some other variation on STEM.

These new acronyms make it seem as if STEM is now outdated and schools all need to get with the latest acronym. Before you panic, because you are sure your child will not have competitive skills in science and technology-related fields, read on to find out what all of this acronym stuff is really all about.


  • STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and math
  • STEAM: Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math
  • STEMM: Science, technology, engineering, math, and music


Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) came to be the acronym used to symbolize a modern approach to science and related subjects that teaches interrelated concepts and focuses on identifying problems that are solved with critical thinking and analytical skills. 

Then, the Rhode Island School Of Design coined the acronym STEAM, specifically adding art into the mix. This was meant to show that elements of good design and creative approaches are also incorporated into teaching. 

Other schools and educators have also come up with their own twist—and acronym—like adding a second M for music. There are also programs like Design Thinking from Stanford which teach problem-solving and critical thinking for real-world problems that often use STEM skills in projects.

By adding the art/music/design element educators believe that they are having the student use both sides of their brain—analytical and creative— to develop the best thinkers of tomorrow. 

Really, when it gets down to it, the acronym choice shows which brand of curriculum or teaching methods are being used to teach STEM. Regardless of which materials are used, a teacher or school could still be pulling in other elements or materials to their teaching. 

The acronym your child's school uses isn't the only sign of a quality program. It is a lot like a brand name approach to STEM education. Some acronyms actually are branded by curriculum material providers.

While the added letters may signal the use of curriculum that encourages multiple types of thinking, the absence of extra letters does not mean the teaching methods are outdated. It simply means the school is not using a particular brand to teach STEM.

Signs of Good Instruction

What does matter is that the key elements of good STEM instruction are present in the classroom. Rather than asking your child's teacher if they teach STEM or STEAM or something else, look for these marks of quality:

  • Science and math learning are related to real-world problems.
  • Project-based learning assignments allow students to make observations, identify problems, and create solutions independently and with their peers.
  • Good design and aesthetics are taken into account on projects, when appropriate.
  • Project-based learning includes the use of other content topic skills, such as reading, writing clearly and persuasively, proper use of math to analyze data, and more.
  • All students—including girls, minorities, and struggling learners—have opportunities and access to project-based STEM instruction.

What is really important for STEM education is that children learn how STEM applies to their lives, along with the critical thinking and reasoning skills that will allow them to identify a problem and find ways to solve it. Finding creative approaches to new and existing problems is a key skill needed in today's economy and the workplace of the future.

1 Source
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  1. Holmlund TD, Lesseig K, Slavit D. Making sense of “STEM education” in K-12 contextsIJ STEM Ed. 2018;5(32). doi:10.1186/s40594-018-0127-2

By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.