As technology has become an increasingly important part of our lives — chances are you’ve got multiple digital devices in the room with you as you read this — educational institutions have increasingly emphasized STEM. STEM, to those who aren’t familiar, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and many students, parents, and educators have come to view it as the only worthy area of study. Meanwhile, things like art, literature, and the softer sciences have fallen out of favor, viewed as dead-end areas of study. But the truth is that this is a narrow and incomplete viewpoint, and focusing exclusively on STEM will leave future generations lacking in certain essential knowledge. Rather, they should shift their focus to the broader range of topics encompassed by STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.
The addition of “Art” may seem incongruous with the other four fields in the acronym. But in reality, art is a crucial part of innovation and will be a thriving area of career growth in the future. Consider UX/UI design, for instance. An app or website or device can have incredibly powerful technology and engineering at its foundation, but it will never be successful if the user experience and user interface are lacking. People’s judgments of a website’s credibility are 75% based on its aesthetics, and 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a website after a bad experience. What’s more, in a crowded digital landscape where there are countless distractions competing for users’ attention, first impressions are hugely important to the bottom line — and 94% of first impressions are design-related.
The importance of aesthetics and design is becoming more widely recognized as it’s proved to be a major driver in financial returns (one report showed that, in 10 years, a $10,000 investment in design-centric companies would have yielded a 228% greater return than investing the same amount in the S&P). Accordingly, UX/UI roles are in high demand, and will continue to be in the years to come. And while UX/UI roles certainly touch on technology and engineering, they primarily exist in the realm of art. In other words, without art, there is no good design; without good design, there can be no profitable or widely adopted innovations.
Still, there is resistance to the STEAM approach. Many educators and parents view it as simply diluting the focus areas of STEM with fluff, adding a tossed-off arts and crafts activity to serious science-based curriculum. This misconception completely misunderstands both what the “A” stands for and the larger goal of both STEAM and STEM approaches. First, “arts” refers to not just visual arts, though this is a large part of it; it refers to all of the humanities, including music, media arts, ethics, and societal impact, all of which are powerful areas of consideration when it comes to innovation.
Secondly, neither STEM nor STEAM are meant to focus on these areas of study in isolation. It’s not about spending more time on each of the individual subjects: it’s about integrating them in a thoughtful manner, helping students to draw connections between them and use skills and perspectives from one field to troubleshoot or ideate in another. It promotes inquiry and connection, rather than standalone content areas. In this respect, the expansive thinking encouraged by the arts becomes an essential counterpoint to the more rigid and systematic mindset of the STEM subject areas.
There is no doubt that science, technology, engineering, and math are crucial in today’s world and necessary for future generations to master. But the arts cannot be left behind — not only because they connect us to essential elements of our own humanity, and help bring meaning and joy to technology, or because they drive profit through good design, but also because they encourage the kind of integrated, creative problem-solving that will be essential to pave a path forward in the landscape of innovation. STEAM is the educational approach we need today, to create the thinkers and doers we will need tomorrow.