STEAM vs. STEM Learning for K-12: The True Definitions, Differences and Best Practices

STEAM vs. STEM Learning for K-12: The True Definitions, Differences and Best Practices

Students today need to be prepared for the modern-day working world. Standardized testing, sitting quietly in class taking notes and reciting facts from memory may have their place in the classroom — but educators have begun to rally behind a new way of teaching that enables students to learn valuable skills. These skills aim to go beyond traditional assessment models, digitized worksheets and even the scientific approach of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).


Many skills taught in the classroom are soft skills: skills that are acquired through interacting with others and working on projects rather than strictly skills-based. You’re probably familiar with 21st Century skills and STEM initiatives, and both of those things promote opportunities for learning soft skills, such as:

  • Computational Thinking Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaboration on tasks or projects
  • Communication on tasks or projects
  • Technology Literacy
  • Leadership
  • Social Skills

But STEAM takes things a step further. STEAM (also sometimes called S.T.E.A.M.), which stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, is an educational movement that is challenging the way we think about traditional teaching and learning. It aims to not only prepare our young thinkers for their future, but enables them to become thoughtful, creative collaborators along the way.

This week we’re covering all things STEAM — what it really means, how you can apply it in your own classroom and the current trends impacting education.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a STEAM Education?
  2. STEAM vs. STEM
  3. STEAM and STEM Teaching Best Practices
  4. Why STEAM and STEM Kits for Kids are Changing Learning


    What is a STEAM Education?

If you search for a true definition of STEAM education, it can be hard to find a resource that gives comprehensive guidance and applicable methods. In fact, the Department of Education still uses STEM as the current acronym for the strategic initiative underscoring the best way to learn 21st century skills.

STEAM education is derived from STEM education and focuses on fostering not only the core subject areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but also the arts. This is a key differentiator from STEM, as STEM teaches pragmatic mathematical, coding and scientific subject matter.The arts are often overlooked in schools, but they’re critical in the learning process. When educators think of the arts, they often think of visual arts, but STEAM includes  anything from digital design to language arts to music or performing arts. The idea is that many STEM projects require an element of artistic design, communication and collaboration, and without these elements, projects may not reach their full potential.

The Origins of STEAM

Coined by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the university has championed an effort to bring the arts to the national agenda of STEM. RISD’s belief was that we can’t have scientists and programmers without artists and writers, and these jobs are complementary to one another, should work together and understand each other.

And RISD might be onto something. 

STEM jobs alone are growing exponentially. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in computer occupations is projected to increase by 12.5% from 2014 to 2024. This is expected to result in nearly half a million new jobs. Yet another STEM career that is also growing quickly are web developers, growing at 12.8%. These numbers don’t include engineers, which is also projected to add thousands of new jobs every year over the next decade.

But each of these careers can’t just exist with their required skill set alone. We take for granted the dozens of applications we use on our smartphones and the programs we use on our computers. 

While each of these were engineered and coded by someone in a STEM career, it took someone with an artistic background to design the user interface, the user experience, branding and even the marketing that made you aware of the product in the first place.

STEAM makes science, technology, engineering and math even more inclusive for students, too. When you have a student come to you and tell you that the subject matter doesn’t interest them, or they’ll never apply it because they’re more interested in the arts, that’s when STEAM comes in. Challenging your students to know how to speak in STEM while being fluent artistically will make it much easier for them to find a career. 

A few examples of STEAM careers include:

  • Architects
  • Video Game Designers
  • Photographers
  • Graphic Designers
  • Forensic Psychologists
  • Animators
  • Medical and Scientific Illustrators
  • Sound Engineers
  • Scientific and Medical Marketers
  • Scientific and Medical Writers and Editors
  • Sound Designers
  • Product Designers
  • Front End Developers

Although careers are most likely out of mind for students in elementary school, it’s the idea that STEAM can start to foster the foundational skill set at an early age for them, excite them and realize everyone can achieve.

It’s important to remember that STEAM isn’t just about the core subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. It’s a delicate balance of weighing up teaching the core curricular material with giving students the opportunity to develop the soft skills they’ll need to flourish in the future.

teacher and students


So you’ve decided that STEAM is a valuable methodology for your classroom. But what about STEM? What about the current initiatives your school and coworkers have undertaken to bring an emphasis to science, technology and engineering to your schools? Are the arts truly important to justify a modification to the way your staff currently teaches? Will this become a debate?

What most of this boils down to is truly understanding the difference between STEAM vs. STEM.

STEM is scientific; it favors mathematical and scientific reasoning and inquiry-based learning. STEAM adds an artistic flavor into the mix with experimentation, creativity and exploration.

You might find yourself put between two camps, the pragmatists and the creatives, but that need not be. In many ways, STEM and STEAM are working towards the same goals: the further development enhancement of soft skills for students and marrying the arts and science together. 

Earlier in this article, we mentioned the core soft skills that were fostered by STEM. STEAM adds to these by challenging students to develop their relationships and to collaborate on projects. This is because of the broader, more artistic nature of STEAM: creativity, experimentation and imagination. 

This isn’t to say that STEM lacks those things; STEAM is teaching with the intent to infuse art into the math, science, engineering and math from the beginning to give students a holistic view and amplify their learning.

In a STEAM setting, you’ll notice that soft skills become further adapted:

  • Connecting artistic ideas with STEM and applying them to projects in the world around us
  • Communicating not only around the lesson learning, but around individual student ideas
  • Bringing creativity and imagination to life through science, math and technology
  • Problem-solving and brainstorming experimental approaches when failure is met versus ‘pass and failure’

A good way to look at STEAM versus STEM is listening to the classroom and evaluating your curriculum, particularly to see if there is an artistic influence.

STEM: “How do we do this?” (pragmatic)
STEAM: “Could we do this?” (inspired)

STEM: I did this.” (pass versus failure)
STEAM:I made this.(created versus completed)

If you find yourself in a situation where someone asks you why STEAM and whether the arts really needs to be included, it really should come down to this: STEAM isn’t just about the “A”. The arts should be applicable when students can give real-world context to problems or solutions.

Students making kit

STEAM and STEM Teaching Best Practices

Incorporating STEAM into your curriculum, lesson plans and student’s regular learning routine requires a few best practices. To ensure the best success, follow these three best practices: support, excitement and alignment.

1. Support

Getting support for STEAM is crucial— both at a school and district-wide level. While classroom-to-classroom implementations are a great start, it can be difficult to convince administrators of results or grow a STEAM program further if buy-in doesn’t happen as a whole.

Getting Administrator Support

Talking to your administrators about your understanding, plans and results using STEAM is an excellent way to start conversations around a STEAM implementation. A well-integrated STEAM program affects many different roles and departments in a school district. If you’re looking for administrators to reach out to, consider your:

  • Principal
  • STEM Coordinator
  • Librarian or Media Specialist
  • Technology Director
  • Instructional Technology Director
  • Instructional Technology Support Staff
  • Curriculum Director
  • Director of Strategy or New Initiatives


These roles are just the tip of the iceberg; your district may have needs that STEAM can address and people in roles that are aligned with your goals. Who knows — they may already be working on similar projects! Districts can become large enough that communication can be layered and some of the amazing work that’s being done often isn’t easily accessible. Having conversations with people in your organization can connect you.

Getting Educator Support

Another important component of STEAM is making sure that your fellow educators have a similar view of its benefits, how it works and ultimately, a long-term plan to integrate. While some educators may be hesitant or may not understand the difference between STEM and STEAM, educating them on the differences, providing examples and starting a conversation about what an implementation could look like for a full-grade can yield incredible results.

Every student deserves the benefits of STEAM, and the more educators you have bought into the benefits, the more powerful your program will grow.

Not sure how to explain STEAM quickly and easily? Feel free to share this article with a colleague!


2. Excitement

The best part about STEAM is the general excitement that can be generated around not only the results, but the type of learning that comes along the way. You’ll quickly notice that traditional pen-and-paper, textbook or digitized worksheets or quizzes won’t be met with the same enthusiasm from your students and educators that STEAM learning will. 

While it’s easy to get caught up in a one-size-fits-all approach for STEAM and students, it’s important to remember the power of the “A” in STEAM and how it can be customized for each individual student.

Getting Each Student Excited

STEAM is powerful because of the “arts” included within the STEM approach. This makes it much more inclusive to a variety of different learning styles. When incorporating STEAM into your lessons and getting students started on projects, help them go beyond the math and science if their interest isn’t immediately there. Remind them that STEAM encourages connections beyond STEM, and that there are ways to amplify math, science and engineering through the arts.


3. Alignment

While incorporating STEAM into your curriculum is exciting, it’s important to begin in small, deliberate and effective ways. There are two ways to do this.

Using the Right Curriculum

Using the right curriculum is one of the most important things you can do to align STEAM to your lessons. If you plan on making your own lessons, try to challenge your students to use the soft skills STEAM offers while incorporating elements of the art that really could amplify, not distract or take away, from the math, science or engineering learning.

If you plan on using a STEAM curriculum, educators need to heavily vet products from edtech vendors. Many STEAM vendors may stamp their products with “STEAM” when they don’t vary much from STEM. To truly get all the benefits from STEAM, make sure you’ve looked at past student examples from vendors and lesson plans offered and picture what it would look like for your classroom, school or district.

Need inspiration for STEAM lessons? Check out SAM Lab’s STEAM lessons that accompany our STEAM kits for the classroom.

Not Forcing the “A” in STEAM

The last piece of the puzzle for implementing STEAM correctly in the classroom is making sure that educators don’t force the “A” in STEAM. The arts are an integral part of a child’s education, but when applied in STEAM as stated above, the arts should  amplify, not distract or take away from, the original core concepts being taught in math, science and technology.

This best practice isn’t just to ensure success in the model — it’s also to prevent backlash from educators who aren’t convinced on impacts of STEAM vs. STEM. By making sure your implementation of the arts are chosen carefully in your lessons, you’ll be in a better position to present your case.

If you’re struggling on how to make the “A” fit within the lesson itself, start small, even if it’s in the delivery how your students model or present their projects.

Examples include:


Acting, plays or dramatic readings with finished projects to present a scientific, mathematical or technological idea to an audience


Using physical elements to artistically amplify an engineered model


Using digital design skills to apply artistic elements to an engineered project

These examples not only give students a chance to integrate the arts, but also a chance to interact with one another as they plan their projects from beginning to end.

Implementing STEAM and Measuring Success

The last and final component of STEAM is choosing your implementation model and measuring your success. STEAM requires educators to think creatively when integrating the model into their curriculum and can become even more challenging when it comes to measuring assessment. We’ve compiled a few tips to get you started.

Choosing Your Implementation Model

Each classroom is different and may require a different approach when implementing STEAM in your classroom. Variables such as class sizes, technical set-up and the time available for STEAM lessons can impact your implementation.

For that reason, each educator may have to choose a model that fits the needs of that classroom, school or district.

Complete Curriculum Model

Many STEAM lessons available to educators today are aligned to NGSS standards. This makes a fully incorporated STEAM science curriculum possible. Because STEAM also covers math and engineering, you might also find alignment for CSTA or other areas taught in Common Core.

Unit of Study Model

If you can’t easily replace an entire curriculum, a unit of study conducted with students in varying intervals to support engineering design, physical science, life science, earth and space science, and math may be the better option. This gives students the option to work on projects at their own pace and frees up valuable lesson time for educators.

Enrichment Model

Lastly, an enrichment model may suit educators who can partner with external programs or venues, such as after school clubs, makerspaces or libraries. Many of these places allow for more space and access to technology than the typical classroom can provide.

Ultimately, it’s important for educators to remember that each model can be customized to their needs and may be a combination of two or more approaches.

Reassessing Your Measures of Assessment

Assessment is still a critical component of teaching for both students and administration. For students, it’s important to make sure they graduate leaving with the knowledge that will adequately prepare them for the working world or higher education. 

For schools and districts, it’s often about funding purposes. Some school districts receive more funding when located in a high-poverty area, but not all the time. Other districts that are wealthy continue to score highly on academic achievement assessments. Districts are constantly looking at one another, competing with funds, no matter the dollars allocated by the state each year. But getting high scores district-to-district is always competitive. 

Integrating STEAM can get political if administration isn’t bought in, so making sure you’re set up correctly for assessment is crucial. To make sure you’re prepared, there are two ways to reassess your assessment models:

Making sure your curriculum is aligned to state standards can provide you the peace of mind that you’re educating your students with what the state deems important to know upon graduation. These are also concepts that are likely to be tested upon.


If creating your own assessments on STEAM, consider a deeper understanding around validity versus reliability to truly incorporate the correct instruments and intervals of data being collected. By learning about the right way to measure results and how it can be adapted to STEAM, you can measure efficacy and improve your program.

Implementing a STEAM program can sound tedious and challenging, but it’s an exciting journey that can bring incredible results to your classroom, school or district. If you’re curious to learn more and want extra help in your process, feel free to reach out to a member of our SAM Labs team who specializes in implementations. We’d love to help you reach your goals and for more inspiration, check out our Lesson Packs below. 

Sample STEAM Lesson Packs

Why STEAM and STEM Kits for Kids Are Changing Learning

Looking for a great way to start implementing STEAM in your classroom? STEAM kits, a combination of Bluetooth-enabled hardware, easy-to-use software and standards-aligned curriculum, may be a great way to integrate science, math, engineering design and the arts in one total package for your students.

The kits themselves provide a huge advantage over traditional STEM and STEAM digital curriculum because they provide elements that are physical and digital.  In one of our previous blog posts, we talked about the growing use of technology in the classroom and how devices like Chromebooks, iPads and even smartphones are becoming more accessible.

But trends report that the most downloaded apps for these devices are gamified digital apps or assessment programs. Research proves that these applications have great outcomes for students, too. Recent reports show that one of the biggest benefits of gamification and game-based learning is real-time feedback for students. Students can approach challenges in levels and receive an instant answer as to whether it was correct. 

But gamification and game-based learning can prove challenging for educators in the classroom when not working with a student one-on-one. If a student asks for help with a specific challenge, it can be complicated for a teacher to understand how a student arrived at that level and what steps they took to get that outcome. It becomes even more complicated for educators who don’t tout themselves as “gamers” or are uncomfortable with the digital experience themselves.

With an added tactile element from STEAM kits, educators have a physical connection when intervention is required during their student’s learning process. This can make troubleshooting a problem easier to understand and allow a student to easily explain how they arrived at their solution, instead of trying to recall how they arrived at a particular level in game or simulation.

STEAM kits also give students a safe place to experiment with trial and error while exploring physical computing. There’s no penalty for right or wrong answers. Even better, this element of safety may even foster experimentation beyond what your curriculum provides. 

This is the true power of STEAM: experimentation and creativity within a space safe because of real-time feedback and no penalty of failure.

Students using SAM Space

Getting Started with STEAM Today

You’ve done your research, have a better understanding of STEAM and are one step closer to implementation. Remember — only you can decide the best way to integrate STEAM into your classroom correctly for your students.

If you’re looking for additional resources, feel free to check out:


The Ultimate Edtech Grant Writing Guide and List of Grants 2019-2020

If you’re worried about funding for your STEAM implementation, look no further! We’ve rounded up the latest list of grants you can apply for.


Sample STEAM Lessons from SAM Labs

Our lessons are standards-aligned and cover K–8 and can help give you inspiration for your own STEAM program.


Speaking with an Education Consultant

As mentioned, the SAM Labs team specializes in custom STEAM program implementations. If you’re looking for advice, we’re here to help!



What are your thoughts on STEAM? Have you had success implementing in your own classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!


Eleanor Jacobson

Written by Eleanor Jacobson

I'm an edtech writer who's passionate about changing the world one classroom at a time. When not spreading the news about the latest in K-12 technology, you'll find me geeking out about the latest startups or video games and adding to my '80s toy collection.