Education Cheat Sheet: STEM vs. STEAM

What adding a single letter means for the big education trend, STEM.

Photo: La Pietra—Hawai‘i School for Girls

Editor’s Note: For more than a decade, STEM education has been a big buzzword in classrooms. It wasn’t something we ever encountered when we were kids, but suddenly it seemed every child was learning elements of robotics, scientific theories and engineering problem-solving. Then, just as we were getting used to STEM, STEAM appeared. Now we were not just talking about science, technology, engineering and math, the curriculum now included art. But many parents I talked with wondered “Why art? Doesn’t this just take us back to the traditional subjects we had in school back in the day?” Not necessarily. Megan Meyer of La Pietra—Hawai‘i School for Girls explains.


One of the most commonly talked about issues in education today is how can schools improve curriculum and teaching methods to better prepare students for success in college and beyond in our highly competitive 21st-century global economy?


One response has been the rising popularity of STEM education, which refers to the acronym of science, technology, engineering and math.  The key to STEM is the interdisciplinary approach to teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The STEM approach provides students with opportunities to use several of these subjects together to tackle real-world applications and challenges. It helps to develop 21st century skills essential for success in our increasingly complex world including problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, curiosity, communication and more.


Some educators, however, now believe that the standard STEM approach is missing a critical element; they propose that art should also be an essential component added into the mix of STEM, suggesting a new acronym “STEAM”  (STEM plus “A” for Art). Many advocates believe this should not be limited simply to incorporating the arts; rather, the STEAM emphasis should focus on sparking students’ imagination and embracing a more innovative educational approach by incorporating creative thinking and design skills within the core content of STEM subjects and projects.

Support for STEAM is gaining momentum at home here in Hawaii.   For example, at La Pietra—Hawai‘i School for Girls, art is now integrated into many traditional academic subjects and STEM projects, with teachers and students seeing positive results and learning outcomes.  For example, eighth grade science students demonstrate their theoretical understanding of the laws of physics by building three-dimensional, working roller coasters.  Students use their creative and artistic skills along with engineering knowledge to design the coasters and come up with themes for the rides. The project also requires innovative, critical thinking and problem solving as the students work together on this challenging and fun assignment.


And it’s fun! Science teacher Kim Strong says, “There is a festive atmosphere in the classroom during this project.  Girls are engaged and having fun with the creative and artistic aspects of the assignment while mastering difficult physics concepts. Students have produced incredibly complex working roller coasters with exceptionally creative themes.”


Parent Homework


However, one of the best ways to learn about STEM and STEAM education is to experience it first hand!  Parents can prepare children from a young age by providing a rich array of experiences that are interesting and fun.  Visits to local museums and organizations such as the Pacific Aviation Museum, Discovery Center, Art Explorium, Bishop Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art to check out exhibits and to participate in hands-on interactive activities and classes inspire creativity and curiosity.  Parents and children can also learn and have fun by making their own STEM and STEAM projects at home, such as building a backyard weather station or cooking s’mores in a home-made solar oven.  For project ideas and inspiration, parents can check out online “do it yourself” youtube videos as well as a myriad of educational websites, such as those listed below.



Megan Meyer was raised in Honolulu and is the Director of Admissions at La Pietra—Hawai‘i School for Girls, an independent college-prepatory school for girls in grades 6th through 12th grade.  She has worked as an administrator in independent schools for 20 years. You can reach her at or learn more about La Pietra at


Education Cheat Sheet is a collaboration between HONOLULU Family magazine and Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools to help Hawai‘i parents understand the educational trends and terminology in today’s classrooms. You can find a new column on every third Monday of the month. Click here to read more.