Blog 14 Mar 2016 

Educating Future Engineers: STEM vs STEAM

How adding the arts to math and science could help today’s students meet tomorrow’s skills gap

Becky Fields

Becky Fields

Corporate Communications Manager

Engineering is all around us. It’s in the devices we use, the cars we drive, and the bridges we drive over. Examples of engineering feats can be seen in many aspects of everyday life. Even though the signs of engineering are everywhere, students are often not inspired to enter this rewarding field. Many students are unaware of career possibilities or, even worse, are taught engineering in a dry, uninspiring way.

Engineering is all around us. It’s in the devices we use, the cars we drive, and the bridges we drive over. Examples of engineering feats can be seen in many aspects of everyday life. Even though the signs of engineering are everywhere, students are often not inspired to enter this rewarding field. Many students are unaware of career possibilities or, even worse, are taught engineering in a dry, uninspiring way.

For many years education has focused on promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and pigeon holing individuals into either a STEM or an art” subject. Creating self-limiting beliefs that we cannot be good at both, restricting individual’s so they don’t reach their full potential and ultimately suppressing the development of the next generation of technologies.

Arts education is a source of inspiration and creativity, broadening people perspectives. Creativity and critical thinking are crucial for both invention and innovation of new technologies.

In the UK we have many issues plaguing the STEM field; an overall lack of students recruited to these fields and a wide gender gap. The demand for engineers is greater than the number of engineers available to fill these jobs. Not only are these jobs plentiful, they are intellectually and creatively stimulating, and financially rewarding.

A group at The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the United Kingdom produced an enlightening research report (Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers) on parent and student views of engineering. Understanding how engineering is viewed can offer direction about how to change this view from distaste to a lifelong love of engineering.

Interest and take up of STEM subjects

Of course, some will never be interested in, or suited to, an engineering career; a good indicator is their enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. There has been much discussion about this in educational circles but the consensus is that enthusiasm for these subjects needs to be nurtured at a young age. CPI has over 20 STEM ambassadors and their role is to share their experience of STEM and encourage young male and females into a engineering career. Having that reality of sharing your own personal experience benefits the students because they can see the end goal and the possibilities.

What are STEM Ambassadors?

STEM Ambassadors use their enthusiasm and commitment to encourage young people to enjoy STEM and STEAM subjects. They open the doors to a world of opportunities and possibilities which come from pursuing STEM subjects and careers. STEM Ambassadors not only inspire young people, they also support teachers in the classroom by explaining current applications of STEM in industry or research.

CPI STEM Ambassadors include: Apprentices, fermentation scientists, process engineers, lab technicians, engineers, chemistry technicians, Our STEM Ambassadors are across all ages and backgrounds, ranging from 18 years old – 60 years old.

Children like STEM subjects for different reasons

  • Science involves experiments, finding how things work, is interesting and fun, creative, practical/​hands on, exciting, involves making things. 
  • Design and Technology is about making things, designing, creativity, drawing, building, it is fun, they find how things work, challenging, makes them think hard, is graphical and technological. 
  • ICT / Computing involves computers, also playing games, the technology is fun and interesting, it involves designing / making / building / programming in code, they are good at it, they find out how things work. 
  • Maths they feel they are good at, they like numbers, working things out, solving problems, it is easy but still challenging, makes them think hard, interesting, logical, involves puzzles and games. 

What they don’t like

Many tend to dislike STEM subjects because they are classed as boring, while girls say they are hard or difficult, but on many occasions this is down to the teaching style of these subjects and having STEM ambassador’s helps change perception of these subjects.

In a recent UK report Inspiring the next generation of Engineers it was highlighted what school children aged between 9 – 12 think of STEM subjects and the results are surprising!

When asked what subjects they enjoy at school, STEM subjects top children’s list, particularly ICT/​Computing, enjoyed by more than half of children (52%). More than two in five also enjoy Science (46%), Design and Technology (45%) and Maths (44%).

However, the difference between girls and boys is very apparent – STEM subjects are enjoyed far less by girls. Girls enjoy Art (57%), Music (41%) and English (40%), all more than any of the STEM subjects, while even PE/​Sports (39%) are enjoyed more than some STEM subjects. 

Girls have some awareness that STEM subjects can lead to a career in engineering, focusing mainly on Design and Technology, and Maths. Art, Music and English however tend to be of more interest to girls overall. 

Those girls who enjoy any STEM subjects do so because they like making things, like computers, it is fun, they like maths, find it interesting, and like the experiments

With a major skill gap in the UK manufacturing industry and the industry crying out for female apprentices and engineers surely the time has come to integrate art into stem education? Stimulating and developing the imagination and critical thinking skills, refining cognitive and creative skills. The arts” fuel inquisitiveness which provides the scientific mind with a larger context.

Both sides of the brain contribute to our personality traits and more importantly our personal abilities. The left controls language, maths, logic, speech, analytical functions and focuses on deductive reasoning, problem solving, inductive reasoning and problem sensitivity. The right controls emotions, creativity, visual imagery, spatial abilities and focuses on creativity, innovation, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, flexibility, adaptability, social and cross cultural skills. 

Recent developments in neuroscience confirm, what has always been believed, that individuals learn using both sides of the brain and all their senses. For example pictures encourage us to think about and understand the world visually, instead of restricting learning and the acquisition of knowledge to words and numbers alone, so our challenge is now to bridge the divide we have created.

Art is often touted as a method of adding creativity to STEM — but keep in mind that engineers are rarely lacking for creativity and ingenuity. Just look at the world around you for proof. The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.

STEAM takes the standard STEM formulation (science, technology, engineering, and math) and adds an A for arts

Perceptions of engineering are consistent, but views on STEM vs. STEAM subjects are varied

The broader spectrum of STEM subjects appears to be well understood amongst parents and the encouragement of these subjects is unanimously applauded. However, while some parents were delighted at the thought of their child being encouraged in a STEM career, others embraced the idea less well and seemed confused and unimpressed by the prospect of STEM for their child. These parents typically placed more emphasis on the importance of learning a skill or a trade, and being practical rather than theoretical.

STEAM takes the standard STEM formulation (science, technology, engineering, and math) and adds an A for arts. And, well, it seems to be gaining steam, however some have argued that the general addition of an arts” component distracts from the focus on the hard sciences. A recent article by Slate stated that Lloyd M. Bentsen IV, a researcher with National Centre for Policy Analysis, says STEM already suffers from a major problem with student engagement, and the focus on changing STEM to STEAM would distract from the issue.

STEM supporters argue that STEM lessons naturally involve art (for example, product design), language arts (communication), and social studies and history (setting the context for engineering challenges). STEM projects do not deliberately exclude the arts or any other subject; rather, these subjects are included incidentally as needed for engineering challenges.

The focus of STEM is developing rigorous math and science skills through engineering. How can you focus on other subjects (such as art) without losing the mission of STEM or watering down its primary purpose?

Art supporters argue that Engineering and technology can certainly serve the artist and help create art. But if we’re talking about how one can use art in engineering… as an artist, it seems we’re missing the point and devaluing, or not realizing, art’s purpose and importance. We have it backwards.

So how exactly can teachers fit the arts into STEM programs and do justice in both subjects?

STEAM supporters argue that it isn’t about spending 20 percent less time on science, technology, engineering, and math to make room for art. It’s about sparking students’ imagination and helping students innovate through hands-on STEM projects. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about applying creative thinking and design skills to these STEM projects so that students can imagine a variety of ways to use STEM skills into adulthood.

Thinking more positively about engineering as a career

To encourage people to think more positively about engineering, parents believe there needs to be more engineering activities in school, more school visits from young engineers, more information about the jobs, apprenticeships and training available. This is where CPI offer corporate social responsibility through our role of offering experience STEM ambassadors to showcase the manufacturing industry.

The engineering and technology skills gap is a huge national problem for the UK. Part of the issue is the fact that we have the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe. Only 6% of engineers are female.

EngineeringUK says that the UK will need to find 1.82 million new engineers in the decade up to 2022. The IET has already identified four key ways to do this: 

  • Improved and sustained collaboration between employers and the education system to make sure new graduates and school leavers meet the needs of industry. 
  • Employers taking concrete action to attract more women into engineering for example by offering coaching opportunities and promoting flexible working. 
  • Employers developing the skills of their existing workers to meet the growing and changing needs of industry. 
  • The Government ensuring there are clear progression routes into engineering through academic and vocational routes so that both are seen as equally valid.

All of these are important but we must also make engineering and technology careers more appealing to young people and the people influencing them: teachers and parents. After all, parents’ concern is to find the right career for their child rather than to tackle the UK’s skills gap.

There isn’t a clear picture of what STEAM education actually looks like – it’s still early days. But children need a well-rounded education and adding the arts to essential 21st century skills will give them that opportunity. Today’s students need tomorrow’s skills, and if that means adding the arts to math and science so that they can have what it takes to live in this ever-changing world, then so be it. The students of today need to be able to solve the problems of tomorrow. STEM and STEAM educational programs can both help them do that. As long as students are motivated and engaged in what they are doing, they have a real chance to make a difference in this world. The first step to creating more engineers is inspiring more students to become engineers. So it makes sense STEAM not STEM allow new connections and relationships to be made in areas of technology, because we all know the most interesting stuff is at the boundaries! 

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