First published at Friday, February 08 2019


Written by Chloë Nelson from Auslytics


Everybody's doing it. Everybody's talking about it. Most teachers are being asked (or more likely, told) to do it. Some people are also calling it STEAM. Others are calling it STE(A)M. More than one place I've seen is calling it STREAM and I kid you not, other places are advertising that they do SHTREAM. Something we've noticed though, is that there aren't too many people telling you what STEM / STEAM / or any other iteration actually is. Hopefully this post will help you out.*  

I'm going to start with what STEM is not.

Doing STEM is not just:

  • Doing coding.
  • Building robots.
  • Flying drones.
  • Making sure the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths are ticked off in each project.
  • Building something.

These dot points are important in learning the skills to be able to do STEM well, and also learning to use new technologies that will become more common-place, but on their own they are not doing STEM.  


This means, to do STEM well students need to be able to:

  • Undertake the engineering design cycle:

    • Define the question or problem
    • Imagine, create and brainstorm solutions or ideas
    • Choose and justify a solution and then plan to carry it out
    • Create, prototype or trial the solution
    • Evaluate the result then go through the cycle again

  • Have the skills and knowledge to investigate, evaluate and use (or know how to learn to use) a range of technologies
  • Have access to the opportunity to evaluate and improve on their solutions

Science, technology, engineering and maths are relevant at all stages of the design process, and hence where the name 'STEM' comes. When I think about STEM solutions or ideas (more on this below), I can't think of a solution or idea that doesn't include each of these elements. I also want to point out that other areas of knowledge can be incorporated too - STEM design process aren't limited to science, technology, engineering and math areas, I think of them more as the starting point. This leads me onto:

So if that's what STEM is, what is STEAM or STE(A)M?

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with this, but I'm going to say it anyway. In my opinion, STEAM is for people who don't know actually know what STEM is and want to seem like they're doing something more advanced. People who say they are doing STEAM, say they are also incorporating the arts. This makes me wonder if they actually know what STEM is because engineering is designing; designing involves being artistic; therefore, the arts are already included in STEM, they don't need a separate letter.

My good friend and colleague, the very talented Kristen Hebden (leader of the FabLab at Lauriston Girls' School), put it much more eloquently than I did when we described that she is actually offended when people feel the need to say they're doing STEAM as it completely disregards the creativity and imagination that is inherent in all of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For example, engineers imagine, create and design solutions to all sorts of problems. Although not all engineering solutions would be described as beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, creativity, aesthetics and imagination are all tools in an engineer's skillset. The purpose of the design process is to investigate solutions that can help - solutions could be writing a memorable jingle, developing a puppet show, creating an artwork... Hence, the 'A' in STEAM is redundant, and more importantly, if you are insisting that doing STEAM is something different to doing STEM, you're missing the whole point of STEM.

But what about STREAM, STRREAM, SHTREAM...?

SHTREAM apparently incorporates science, humanities, technologies, reading (wRiting, religion), engineering, arts and mathematics. I'm not actually joking that this exists. I've seen it, and gosh was it a shambles! 

If you are doing STEM as per our definition, I believe all areas of knowledge are being incorporated and hence the name might actually be irrelevant (see below). Kristen once said to me that she's trying to move away from the label of STEM (partly because of the issues associated with the common use of STEAM) and more to talking about design thinking instead. I like where she's going with this.

But the humanities are important too! Why just focus on STEM!?!?! 

Yes, the humanities are important. All areas of knowledge are important, and as I mentioned before, I believe all areas of knowledge are being incorporated when we are doing STEM as per my definition. For example:

Let's say we're trying to find some solutions to reduce the amount of rubbish that occurs on a community beach. If we start with the define step of the engineering design cycle, we have to figure out why the rubbish is there in the first place. This involves research, investigation and observation. It involves communication, psychology and sociology. It includes analysis, calculations and using various technologies to collect and understand data - and remember any tool is a piece of technology, including a pencil. We have to understand our findings within the particular social, political and environmental context they were researched in. At this point, we haven't even got past the design step and I feel like I've included most areas of knowledge. 


The bottom line: why do STEM at school?

 STEM has different meanings in different contexts. In schools, doing STEM is a way of thinking and doing - it is following the engineering design process of designing, creating and evaluating solutions to problems and questions and then doing it all again. In their lives, our students are going to be faced with increasingly complex problems. They will need to use the skills they've developed through STEM design thinking to tackle this problems and create unique, and probably complex, solutions.


Coming up: how to do STEM in schools, the STEM pipeline, tertiary STEM subjects and careers, assessing STEM, recommended technologies for doing STEM, STEM in the home, and many more!

 *My understanding of what STEM is comes from working as a teacher, a scientist, being part of engineering research groups and undertaking a PhD in STEM education. It also comes from reading the research literature around STEM education. I'll admit that there is no one right answer to the question "what is STEM" but I aim to define it to enable teachers to do something with it that is useful for students. In a later post, I might write a referenced history of STEM education, but for now this will have to do.

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