STEM or STEAM: What's the Difference?

ALI Staff | Published  July 08, 2016

Education and acronyms seem to go hand-in-hand. However, juggling all the acronyms in education and the nuances that separate them can be confusing.

When looking at STEM and STEAM, it can sometimes be challenging to see their differences. 

At their heart, STEM education and STEAM education are about providing students with a broad set of skills in various disciplines that will help up their technical game and be better thinkers and problem solvers their whole lives.

But, if you have to pick just one, how do you know which is right for your classroom?


STEM vs STEAM - the difference is more than just a letter

STEM came first in developing learning approaches that teach students while also giving them skills that will play into various professional careers. STEM education focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM careers range from biologists to astronauts, psychologists to mechanical engineers.

Honing in on these four disciplines wasn’t arbitrary either. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow by 10.8 percent between 2021-2031. That’s more than double the amount of growth projected across all occupations. Fostering STEM education among students is giving them a leg up to meet the demands of the professional world

STEAM emerged on the educational scene as research began demonstrating the importance of students learning soft skills alongside more technical ones.

Skills in this arena include creativity, collaboration, cooperation, and the ability to adapt. These skills help round out a STEM professional, adding value to them as an employee. 

Rolling all these soft skills into a single subject– you get the ‘A’ in STEAM– the arts. While many immediately think of students sitting in an art class as representative of the ‘A’ in STEAM, this area goes much further.

Design, writing, drama, and music can all represent the arts, and you don’t have to do these solely within an art class. Writing ties closely into reading and language arts classes, not to mention history.

Design projects fit into even those hard sciences when the activity is just right– and how many times have you asked your students to record a video presentation or perform a skit to interpret a lesson?

STEAM careers include those same professions as in STEM, with a few more added into the mix.

With a background stressing both technical skills and those soft skills gleaned through art and the humanities, a person becomes immediately more marketable.

Today’s hiring managers are looking for well-rounded employees who embody both sides of the professional coin.


How STEM and STEAM differ in the classroom

One of the easiest ways to see the difference between STEM and STEAM is in the types of activities you do with each.

STEM activities, though, skew more toward the application of the technical components of a lesson.

STEAM activities take a STEM concept and encourage students to work through it collaboratively, approaching the lesson in a way that may not feel as straightforward. 

Many STEM activities also require creativity, but it’s within specific parameters -- the technicalities. Students may get asked to build their own working gear to perform a particular function, create an accurate scale, or construct a bridge out of toothpicks.

Many of these activities can be completed independently, without collaboration being an essential component.

STEAM education examples often involve a group. Students may play games or do experiments that take them out of the technicalities of a lesson for a little something extra. Making a volcano erupt with baking soda is an excellent example of a STEAM activity, as is making an artistic representation of the latest animal they’re learning about in biology.

Including the arts doesn’t necessarily alter what the students are learning; it just changes how they apply their knowledge and engage with the facts.


STEM OR STEAM ––Which is right for my class?

It’s a tough call deciding whether to take a STEM or STEAM approach.

If you’re considering one or the other, it’s best to look at your overall learning goals to see which fits appropriately. Whether you’re teaching all subjects to a class (as in elementary school) or have a singular focus (like in high school) can also impact which side of the discussion you may lean toward.

Proponents of STEAM see adding in the arts as a natural progression of STEM. You can’t do most art without some understanding of basic science and engineering principles, and many technically designed products benefit from a bit of outside-the-box thinking.

Additionally, studies examining the link between art and academic performance see a positive correlation. Many students in arts programs demonstrate an improved performance in literacy and math skills. This can translate to higher test scores as well as better grades.

Those who prefer focusing on STEM often leave out the ‘A’ to focus on the skills needed in these specific disciplines. Since it’s only within the last 20 years that the connection between science, technology, engineering, and math has really been noted, education as a whole is still making up for the deficiency in learning given to these areas previously.

There’s a concern that adding in the arts while still figuring out what STEM is all about could delay the development of a refined teaching approach.

Both arguments make sense; however, education needs to be malleable to prepare students for the world they’ll enter once they complete their education.

Regardless of what major they study in college or what career they pursue, being prepared is essential, and school is where that all begins. Using either one of these learning approaches not only helps in preparation but also exposes students to opportunities within these fields they may not have known were out there.



Both STEM and STEAM focus on revolutionizing traditional learning to create a paradigm shift in classroom learning. Students can test ideas and learn about various opinions on subjects to gather their own understanding.

Integrated learning focuses less on the results of standardized test scores and more on real-world application, helping to prepare students for advanced learning and their future professions. 

Both disciplines influence how these subjects are taught today, advocating for hands-on learning and exploration, collaboration, critical thinking, and real-world problem-solving.

Whether STEM or STEAM is used to teach the principles of science and mathematics, both help students discover greater application of those principles and prepare them for the future. 


The debate STEM vs STEAM is here for now

With no clear winner in the debate between STEM and STEAM education, don’t expect either to go away as education evolves. Schools and curriculum specialists will see value in one or both and adapt as needed for their students.

What’s important is that both can add value to your learning approach, so either choice is a win for your students and their future.







Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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