Girl scientist experimenting in front of STEM poster

Why STEAM & STEM Education is crucial for fostering innovation?

What is STEAM / STEM Education?

STEAM is an evolution of the STEM Education movement, a 21st-century idea designed to develop our children to be ready for the jobs of the future.  The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering & math.  Instead of memorizing facts and figures, STEM education promotes students engagement with the real world, through experiences, experiments, and projects.  Often, instead of individual work, students practice collaborating in group activities.  Students observe their environment, assess the situation, brainstorm & hypothesize potential solutions, experiment, and work together to solve problems.

Recently there has been a debate in the education community on whether STEM education is enough to enable innovation.  Some influential voices have suggested "STEAM" vs. "STEM" by adding "Art" as the fifth discipline needed for a well-rounded education.  Later in the article, I'll examine this debate in more detail.


Girl scientist experimenting in front of STEM poster

Why is STEAM / STEM Education so important?

The thought process is that the combination of science, technology, engineering, and math leads to innovation.  Innovation leads to jobs, prosperity, and progress.  If you look at the last 2000 years of world history, the great civilizations of antiquity all got there on the backs of world-changing innovations.  Examples include:

  • Greek Empire (800 BC to 600 AD) - Democratic government, the Olympics, the Hippocratic Oath, the screw, theater, and philosophy are all innovations credited to the Greeks.
  • The Roman Empires (27 BC to 1453 AD) - Monty Python said it best "What have the Roman's ever done for us?"
  • Chinese Empire (221 BC to 1912 AD) - Innovations include paper, gunpowder, compasses, paper currency and silk.
  • Islamic Golden Age (750 AD to 1257 AD) - The first universal civilization lead the way in mathematics, scientific method, astronomy, physics, and medicine.
  • British Empire (1583 AD to 1950's AD) - Innovations included exploration, science, trade, language, and culture.
  • The United States - Mass production of steel, lightbulbs, railroads, transistors, nuclear bombs, freeways, the space race and the internet.

American ingenuity and innovation have helped American maintain its global leadership, but we have a lot of competition coming from countries such as Germany, China, India, Israel and more.  The 2015 Program International Student Assessment (PISA) a benchmark for education systems, determined that America's education system was the 25th best in the world.  Singapore, Japan, and Estonia took the first three spots, with countries such as Canada, China, Austraila and UK not too far behind.  Interestingly, the US students performed comparably in science & reading, but its math where we were below average.


Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor, lead a study which concluded that raising US test scores in math and science would have a significant benefit to the US economy.  In his book, The Knowledge Capital of Nations, he presents data that suggests "cognitive skills" is the key to a countries development, and improvements to the education system are the reason for the remarkable Asian growth in GDP over the last 30 years.  For America to maintain its reputation as a "shining city on a hill," this generation and the next will need to continue to win the innovation race and reap the benefits it rewards.

Home scientist experiment

The financial benefits of STEM

Here are the top 15 highest paying jobs in America according to the career site, Glassdoor, along with the median base salary.

  1. Physician - $187,876
  2. Pharmacy manager - $149,064
  3. Patent attorney - $139,272
  4. Medical science liaison - $132,842
  5. Pharmacist - $125,847
  6. Enterprise architect - $112,560
  7. Physician assistant - $112,529
  8. Applications development manager - $112,045
  9. R&D manager - $111,905
  10. Software engineering manager - $109,350
  11. IT architect - $105,303
  12. Software architect - $104,754
  13. Nurse practitioner - $104,144
  14. Solutions architect - $102,678
  15. Data architect - $102,091

Outside of the patent attorney, the other 14 highest paying jobs in the US have heavy STEM requirements.  Skimming the list, I don't see any reason why these 14 jobs won't continue to be among the highest paying jobs fifty years from now.  Do you?

STEM vs. STEAM?  Which should we focus on?

I've seen very little debate against the virtues of instilling science, technology, engineering, and math in our kids.  Some have argued that it is not a requirement to have a degree in computer science, chemistry or engineering if you want one of above jobs.  Maybe that's true in technology, but even in that case, it certainly helps!

Living in Silicon Valley, I was acutely aware of STEM, and as a parent of two children, I've often fretted whether I was doing enough to encourage my children in these disciplines.  Its only after starting this blog and dedicating myself to this subject, have I learned about the multiple different variations.  There is STEAM which adds "Arts" to the acronym.  STREM add "Robotics."  There is even a version called STEMM which adds "Medicine."

No doubt all of these additions have their merits, but the more you add, the more you water down the concept and increase complexity in execution.  To simplify the debate, I'm going to differentiate between STEM vs. STEAM.

The debate really stems from this concept of focus and dilution.  Many educators worry that we as a country are so far away from meeting necessary STEM job requirements, that we need to double down on connecting these four disciplines to enable the workforce of the future.  Gary May, the dean of Georgia Tech College of Engineering, makes this point strongly in his blog, where he cites a survey of executives that suggested 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants lack basic STEM skills.  Considering how fast STEM jobs are growing in the US, this is concerning.  Also, all signs point to automation being a significant disruptor in the labor market, replacing entry-level jobs with robots in industries such as taxis to assembly line worker.

On the flip side,  advocates for STEAM argue that the arts are necessary for stimulating design, interfaces, solutions, and creativity.  I'd argue that while American math scores may be lower than the rest of the world, our ability to be entrepreneurial, resourceful, tough, and innovative, is why we lead the world.  Without the arts, we wouldn't have Apple, Tesla, Nike, and so much more.  We need people who can access both sides of their brain to create breakthrough products.

Advocates for STEAM

Steve Jobs famously said this about Apple. "Technology alone is not enough…It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that make our hearts sing."  Steve regularly described this convergence of liberal arts, science & technology and felt strongly that everyone should be exposed to it "In my perspective … science and computer science is a liberal art, it’s something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed computation and these computation devices."

The STEAM movement added another powerful advocate when Sesame Street announced that they were adding STEAM content to the 43rd season.  “Incorporating the arts into our STEM curriculum was an exciting and natural addition, as Sesame Street has always used music, visual and performing arts as tools to educate and entertain children,” says Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, SVP of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop.

Sesame Street STEAM

This debate isn't over, and I'd still give the advantage to STEM over STEAM concerning mindshare and cultural impact.  Regardless, all agree that art has an important part to play in childhood education - the debate is on whether it should get equal billing as the rest of STEM.

By now, I hope I've convinced you of the importance of incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math.  Also, there shouldn't be any doubt that the arts have a substantial role to play too.  In my next post, I'll be sharing practical tips for instilling STEM concepts in your kindergarten children.

Net it Out & Call to Action

  • STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.
  • STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
  • The history of civilization shows that innovation is one of the keys to longevity and greatness.  If America is going to continue to be the world leader, we will need to continue to be the innovation leader.  Considering America is ranked 25th in the world in its education systems, we have a real risk of falling behind.
  • STEM-related jobs make up 14 of the 15 highest paying jobs in America.
  • Regardless of the acronym (STEM or STEAM), it is clear that we need to put more focus on developing our children to become stronger at STEM disciplines so that our children can continue to be the leaders of innovation in the future.
  • In my next series of blog posts, I'll share examples how to teach STEAM concepts to your kindergarten, elementary and middle school age children.  In the meantime, check out this post about how to visit dozens of science museums across the country for free.
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2 thoughts on “Why STEAM & STEM Education is crucial for fostering innovation?”

  1. “Skimming the list, I don’t see any reason why these 14 jobs won’t continue to be among the highest paying jobs fifty years from now. Do you?”

    I wonder if we looked at the 15 top paying jobs of 1967, would we have said the same thing back in 1967? (50 years ago)

  2. Good question Eric. I tried to google it, but didn’t find a satisfactory answer. My guess that lawyers and doctors would definitely still be on the list. Instead of all the computer science jobs we now have, there were probably more engineering, finance and sales jobs on the list.

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