STEM (and STEAM) 101
The widely used acronym "STEM" refers to 4 different academic disciplines that serve as the foundation for many innovative global industries, including: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. As defined in a 2012 Congressional report, "'STEM education' refers to teaching and learning in the[se] fields" and "includes educational activities across all grade levels—from pre-school to post-doctorate—in both formal and informal settings."
STEAM is a newer variation of this acronym that adds the Arts as a vital component of this educational focus.
History/Origins STEM & STEAM education
There's some debate over the first official use of the STEM acronym, but increased attention and focus around these areas of study begun to coalesce in the early 2000s that later were ultimately solidified into an acronym by the National Science Foundation. Originally referred to as "SMET," the name was changed thanks to the work of educators and advocates, including the founders of STEM.org, who played a critical role in the rebranding and proliferation of STEM throughout the postindustrial Midwest.
Similarly, a wide range of educators began to call for the inclusion of Art and Design starting in the late 2000s, but the adjusted acronym was formally recognized in a 2013 Congressional resolution that "encourage[d] the inclusion of art and design in the STEM fields."
Arts Matter: The Relationship Between STEM and STEAM
The integration of Art & Design within STEAM educational programs is arguably key to achieving a level of truly competitive innovation. While these subjects may seems strange bedfellows at first glance, the incorporation of the arts can lead not only to higher student engagement, but also stronger conceptual frameworks and more full realized scientific vision. As some scholars warn however, the inclusion of arts has the potential to confuse or otherwise weaken the initial focus of STEM without careful guidance from leading experts in the field of STEAM education. But the change is already underway and savvy educators and administrators across the country are making the shift to a more holistic, yet rigorous approach for 21st century education.
Why Support STEM/STEAM Education?
As a report from Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) argued way back in 2002, STEM industries have an outsized impact on the American economy. More than half of America’s growth over the last 50 years has come directly from the innovative fields of STEM research and development. A 2003 report by the National Science Board echoed these findings. The report called for federal investment in STEM education efforts at the K-12 and post-secondary level, additional support for research into best practices for developing the STEM pipeline, and an increase in support for outreach efforts that stimulate interest in STEM as part of informal educational experiences during internships, after school programs, and summer institutes.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Education has projected massive growth in jobs in the STEM industry by 2020, with an average job increase of 14% across all fields with major spikes are expected in software, medical science, and biomedical engineering. A 2013 article in the International Journal of STEM Education makes clear that not only is STEM education needed to adequately prepare advanced students for niche positions in tomorrow's growing job market, but "improving STEM education may also increase the literacy of all people across the population in technological and scientific areas." In other words, STEM education will prepare all of our students to face the challenges of tomorrow's increasingly complex world, one in which we will all be tasked to become more comfortable with the challenges--and solutions--found in Science, Technology, Art and Design, Engineering, and Mathematics.