“STEAM” vs. “STEM”: What’s the Difference?

meanings of "STEM" and "STEAM" acronyms restated in the article
  • DESCRIPTION
    left right brain concept illustration with STEAM vs STEM meaning
  • SOURCE
    Macrovector / iStock / Getty Images Plus / via Getty created by YourDictionary
  • PERMISSION
    Used under Getty Images license

Is STEM education just “science education”? Why does it need a special name — and where does STEAM come into the picture? STEM (and STREAM) may stand for particular subjects, but the meaning of the acronym goes beyond math problems and science experiments.

What Is STEM?

The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It describes a technical, logical approach to problems built on a background of mathematics and the scientific method. Rather than study these fields in isolation, a STEM approach encourages combining skills for a well-rounded study.

Schools that focus on STEM education may offer an extensive list of STEM majors, including biology, physics, medicine, computer science, and engineering.

Examples of STEM Skills

While STEM addresses the subject-specific skills in its title, it’s more about the skills that students gain when they pursue a STEM education — and the job opportunities that await them when they graduate. 

STEM education focuses on “hard skills” — technological, subject-specific skills — as well as:

  • problem solving
  • critical analysis
  • digital literacy
  • information technology
  • innovation
  • logical thinking

It would be difficult to think of a job in which you wouldn’t need these skills. That’s the goal of STEM: to prepare learners for a technology-rich, science-based future.

What Is STEAM?

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. But STEAM isn’t just STEM with some art projects thrown in — it’s a different approach altogether. 

A STEAM education focuses on interdisciplinary applications to problems. It uses the skills from technical fields as well as the communication, creativity, and abstract thinking of a humanities major (English, art, writing, psychology, sociology, and so on).

Examples of STEAM Skills

STEAM uses a STEM foundation, but incorporates “soft skills” like:

  • creativity
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • flexibility
  • interdisciplinary skills
  • abstract thinking

A person with a STEAM education could be considered a modern-day polymath — someone whose talents range across subjects and disciplines. They can write a well-crafted proposal, plan a project, communicate with a team, analyze its success, and synthesize the next steps.

Is STEAM Better Than STEM?

On paper, it looks like adding the arts to a STEM curriculum is a positive move. And most people would agree that adding arts to a science background can only result in a well-rounded education. After all, most STEM questions revolve around proven facts and inarguable truths rooted in scientific research — wouldn’t adding a little flexibility be a good thing for any budding engineer or scientists?

Not to everyone. Some believe that STEM should remain separate from STEAM, as adding a humanities component may distract from the directed focus of a STEM education. Also, by its nature, STEM encourages teamwork, and therefore communication and collaboration. Many argue that a well-crafted STEM curriculum already includes aspects of the arts, and explicitly adding it in STEAM is unnecessary.

What About STREAM?

What more do you need than Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math? If you noticed that Reading is missing, you’ve solved the STEM vs. STEAM. vs. STREAM mystery. A STREAM education incorporates literacy (Reading and wRiting) into a STEAM approach.

STREAM can also stand for Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts, and Math, separating engineering and robotics as two separate disciplines.

More Variations of STEM

If neither STEM nor STEAM checks enough boxes for you, try out these variations.

  • GEMS - Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science
  • SHTEAM - Science, Humanities, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math
  • STEEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Economics, and Math
  • STEMIE - Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Invention, and Entrepreneurship
  • STEMM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine

The History of STEM and STEAM

We can trace the beginnings of STEM and STEAM to our earliest source of education: ancient Greece. Pythagoras and Archimedes, two of many Greek polymaths, incorporated the skills of many subjects across disciplines (mathematics, philosophy, medicine, political science, poetry). Leonardo da Vinci would continue their Classical method during his scientific and artistic work during the Renaissance.

While the concept of STEM education has been around since the beginning of recorded history, the terms STEM and STEAM themselves have only come about in recent years. The 20th century saw a resurgence of science education in response to the Space Race, leading to a new focus on STEM education in the early 21st century. 

Today, STEM legislation and caucuses — including the 2021 Women in STEM Caucus — explore STEM education opportunities for children of all backgrounds. November 8th is National STEM Day, aimed at encouraging students to pursue futures in STEM (and STEAM) careers.

A Bright Future Stems From a Strong Education

Education isn’t just about getting a job. The true goal of education is to infuse learners with the knowledge and skills they’ll need every day of their lives — and in a STEM or STEAM education, students are truly prepared for the challenges ahead of them. 

For more STEM resources (and a few fun ones), check out: