STEAM education – How successful have we been in mixing STEM and the arts?
Hannah Day charts the rapid rise and apparent decline of an idea – STEM, plus the arts – whose time now seems to have passed…
- by Hannah Day
Education is known for its plethora of acronyms and rapid turnover of ideas and initiatives.
A teaching trend can explode in popularity and become all the rage, only to rapidly fade from view in just a matter of years and be quickly supplanted by the next big thing.
One term that’s arguably bucked the trend, however, is ‘STEM’. The intention of bundling together science, technology, engineering and maths was to focus schools on the core skills perceived as being most valued in the modern workplace, and arguably first entered popular usage at some point around the early 2000s.
At the time, it was certainly true in the US (where the term originated) that workers with STEM-related degrees were out-earning their contemporaries, even in jobs that weren’t directly related. The era also saw notable Stateside expansions of STEM-related industries, which came to be seen as a key component in the country’s efforts to strengthen its economy.
Where the US goes, the UK often follows. STEM thus become a commonly used term across our education profession as well, to the extent that it arguably became the defining educational idea of the past two decades.
For many, however, this focus on STEM lacked a vital component. Science, technology, engineering and maths were self-evidently going to be vital skills in a world increasingly shaped and influenced by technology – but not enough on their own.
Those calling for the arts to be incorporated into STEM teaching would cite various pieces of research showing how engagement with the arts led to increased understanding and ability boosts across all subjects.
After all, we’ve known for a long time that people who read regularly develop skills applicable to all areas of learning – from picking up a wider vocabulary, to being better able to understand and communicate ideas, engage with others’ experience and carry out research of their own.
The thinking was simple enough – add in an art, and all other subjects will benefit. Hence ‘STEAM’. So what happened next?
Looking back from the vantage point of 2023, it’s worth considering whether STEAM education has ever meaningfully existed as a structure to build programs around, or if it was always destined to be a fringe idea perpetually overshadowed by its more high profile older brother. Did the sense of there being a need for creativity in every student’s core program ever really take hold?
My first hint as to the answer was how hard it’s been to find any STEAM-specific learning data. The term itself confounds search engines, which seem convinced that you’ve mistyped and insist on sending you to STEM-focused research data instead.
I should note that there is actually some excellent STEAM education research out there, but it’s difficult to track down. This means we’re less likely to see, read and act upon it.
The other issue I’ve encountered is that publicly available information about STEAM education is often explanatory. It focuses on what STEAM is and how schools can implement it. There’s relatively little data and analysis concerning individuals and organisations that have actively promoted it.
So I took the next logical step and headed to social media…
STEAM vs STEM
Here, at last, teachers came to my rescue. Many told me about the level of STEAM versus STEM provision at their schools. This seemed to reveal a fairly even split between schools promoting one or the other.
There were some voices, however, who told me that despite the ‘STEAM’ headline, the focus in their schools remained mostly on STEM subjects.
Eventually, I found some numbers. Thanks to FFT Education Datalab statistician Natasha Plaister and her article ‘The rise of STEAM’, I able to discover, at least in part, where the UK really was in relation to STEAM teaching. In the article, Plaister maps A Level and BTEC entries for 2017-21 in an effort to spot trends. So what do we find in terms of arts subjects?
Art and design emerges as the clear frontrunner, maintaining entry numbers of 30,000 and above throughout this period. That’s followed by media and film, albeit showing a sharp decline, particularly in 2018 and 2019. The remaining creative pathways – from dance to music and D&T to drama – all sit at 10,000 or fewer.
Compare these figures to the trends for STEM subjects and you see a significant difference. Maths entries sit at around 80,000 throughout the same time frame. Biology entries show an increase from 50,000 to 60,000, followed by chemistry, which grew from 45,000 entries to 50,000. Factor in lower, but still rosy numbers for physics, further maths and computer science, and it would seem that STEM subjects are in rude health.
A quick tally of just the 2021 data shows how stark the divide really is. While the combined number of creative entries that year totalled around 80,000, there were 84,000 entries for maths alone. Once you add in all the other STEM subjects, you’re looking at a combined figure of around 256,000 entries.
That said, this isn’t an entirely fair comparison. The data presented in the article puts all STEM subjects together, while treating all creative subjects separately. There are also no numbers for engineering entries, while ‘technology’ courses could conceivably fall into either the creative or STEM subject camps.
Yet if we look again, the three main sciences when combined make up around 147,000 entries. Maths and further maths added together reach 97,000. That puts both well above the total number of arts entries. And that’s before we even consider subjects such as environmental science and geology.
Unpacking the choices
It’s a similar story for BTECs, which saw an estimated 12,000 entries in creative subjects versus 32,000 for STEM subjects.
Of course, none of this tells us about individual combinations. It may be that the country is awash with graduates who took one creative subject and two from the STEM list.
If we try looking at some of those combinations, D&T, maths and physics would appear to be the most common. This is followed by art and design with maths and physics. In third place is art and design with biology and psychology.
Things then become very hard to call. Which group does music technology belong to? What about single BTEC programs? Many of these – even those on the creative side – involve a more applied, technical program of study.
What the data ultimately shows is that A Levels nationally have seen a slight increase in what we could call STEAM education programs. On the other hand, BTECs have dipped by a similar amount. Yet overall, the numbers are very low. A little over 20,000 are opting for STEAM across both A Level and BTEC.
After all that, it would appear that STEAM, following an initial leap into the educational consciousness, has failed to take hold. And in the absence of additional funding and promotion of the arts at all stages before FE study, that’s unlikely to change.
“It would appear that STEAM, following an initial leap into the educational consciousness, has failed to take hold”
The other takeaway lesson is that data can make things both clearer and harder to understand. It shows the limitations of saying one subject is just one thing. We all know that the boundaries between subjects can be blurred. Content from one field seeps easily into others, and these can sometimes produce unexpected crossovers. Witness debates on evolution in biology, or the role AI can play in creating art.
Because isn’t that the whole point of education? That all subjects are interrelated, and have a contribution to make to our collective understanding?
Whether we continue to talk about STEAM or not, it surely remains the case that a varied programme, interestingly and relevantly taught, must surely always win out over a narrow one.
Hannah Day is head of art, media and film at Ludlow College.