The Differences of STEM vs. STEAM Education (and the Rise of STREAM)

One K–12 educator offers an example of truly cross-curricular education.

As a technology educator with a K–8 undergraduate degree, creation with technology has always been at the heart of my assignments. Students in my technology classes have often infused what they have learned in class into the projects I assigned.  

I haven’t always taught technology though. While teaching middle school language arts, I was asked to add math into lessons. For my students, process writing was a great way to reinforce what they were learning in pre-algebra, and reading mathematical fiction such as Chasing Vermeer allowed students to see how math mysteries could be solved. But how does one combine several subjects, such as in STEM, STEAM, and STREAM? Let’s first examine the difference in these acronyms. 

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What is a STEM Education?

Just integrating the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may seem daunting, but at least they’re congruent. It is not hard for our brains to make the leap between the knowledge needed to teach in these areas.

What is a STEAM Education?

But, what happens when you add in the A for art? You have STEAM, which gives STEM a whole new look and feel. Suddenly, a hands-on activity includes artistic ventures. This can allow students who don’t feel scientifically or mathematically inclined to feel more comfortable representing their knowledge.

What is a STREAM Education?

Add in the R for reading and now you have STREAM, a multidiscipline approach that starts to look like good, cross-curricular teaching.

How can one teacher create these lessons and implement them with fidelity? The answer is easier than you think.

Brainstorm with a Mentor to Implement STREAM

First, buddy up! Find experts, use online content or get a Twitter pal. Check out #STEM!

As teachers, we no longer live in the single-classroom bubble and neither do our students. Gather your resources. No matter which path you take — STEM, STEAM or STREAM — there are others who will want to be involved.

Second, look for natural correlations between subject matter. For a simple example, let’s use 3D shapes, angles and Earth’s systems. In my mind, I have quickly turned this into a fantasy unit about castles and cities.

  • For the science component, you can represent landforms as 3D shapes, demonstrating the effects of weathering.
  • One technology possibility is to use programming to explore angles and shapes.
  • Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland and a nonfiction weathering article are two choices for reading.
  • Engineering comes into play when you explore building shapes and the best locations for building a castle-like structure. Students can represent the scene before and after weathering or discuss how different land features affect building locations.
  • Students can envision and produce art that either depicts or enhances the castle and design their city around it.
  • Rounding out the unit is math instruction specifically around 3D shapes and angles.

Obviously, this is a quick brainstorm to demonstrate how to start the process of uniting different subject matter into one STREAM-powered unit.

Use Ed Tech to Teach STREAM

Now that you gathered your resources (you can always add more later) and developed your major topics, you’ll want to figure out your organizational structure and how you will deliver the material to your students.

If you are already using a digital space to share these with your students, you’re on the right track. This can be as simple as a website or shared folder, like Google Drive, or as complex as using your school’s learning management system to develop the course.

Using technology to house your content does not equate to the T in STEM, but it can be a powerful game-changer.

Envision this: Your content and resources are housed in your Google Drive or Seesaw account. Depending on the age of your students and their level of proficiency, not only will they have access at home to the documents, videos and examples that you have picked for them, they also may be able to interact with the materials, possibly even working collaboratively outside of class time.

Inside your classroom, students can use the technology you have at hand to really enhance this experience. Based on the brainstorm above, I would use the following technology resources:  

  • PBS LearningMedia offers an expansive library of multimedia content. This collection of weathering interactives would help students understand this concept.
  • Blockly has very simple programming apps, including this one where students use their knowledge of angles to recreate shapes.
  • This text set from Newsela will help students create cities by highlighting the great ones.
  • This 360 video on YouTube will give your students great perspective on castles, especially if they’ve never seen one in person.
  • CoSpaces is one of my favorite creation tools right now. Students can build their whole city in a 3D view, copy it, and then edit it to show the effects of weathering.
  • This lesson from Khan Academy will let students explore more about angles at their own pace, because once isn’t enough for many students.

There are many apps and sites available at students’ fingertips. You certainly don’t have to make your whole project “techy,” but think about tools that will really engage your students and try a few!

It is also important to remember that even though you may not be an “expert” in all these areas, you’re not operating in a vacuum. Reach out to others, contact experts and have fun learning!

You may have ideas of other ways to make this lesson truly interactive and engaging. Please share them in the comments below.

Steve Debenport/Getty Images
Aug 14 2017