Susan Riley | September 2018

Too Much Art? The Misconception of STEAM

“There’s just too much art in these STEAM lessons”.

This was the statement shared with me during a meeting with a STEAM coordinator.  He was from a school district looking at our Arts Integration and STEAM curriculum supplement.  For a moment, I was stunned.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that comment, to be honest. So I asked some follow-up questions to try and get some context and clarity.  Turns out, his background is as a science teacher and coordinator.  He had very little arts background and had chaired the district’s STEM committee.

This now started to sound familiar. I could also now understand his hesitation and thought process a bit more.  He was simply making a statement based on what he knew of STEM lessons from his own background.  And what that showed me is that we still have a LOT of work to do when it comes to STEAM education.

STEAM Education for Educators

Let’s lay it out there: STEAM education is confusing for educators. There’s a lot of information out there about what STEAM is and what it looks like in the classroom.  Some of it is based in actual educational practice. And some comes from companies hoping you’ll buy their products.

Additionally, STEM has been a prevalent push in our schools for a long time. Many educators mistakenly assume that STEAM is simply adding in a cute arts and crafts component to a STEM project.  Think about all those Marshmallow Challenges or Spaghetti Towers.  Just because you add color, texture or an art element to your STEM lesson, doesn’t make it STEAM.

An Identity Crisis

Much of this comes from the fact that many teachers and leaders are still unclear about the purpose and the pedagogy of STEM itself.  STEM was never meant to just increase the amount of time and interest students have for science, technology, engineering and math.  It has always been an approach for integrating those content areas together.  For making connections across those content standards. But that has gotten lost along the way with cool 1:1 device initiatives and fun gadgets.

So it’s no wonder that STEAM has seen some pushback and people think it’s adding “fluff” to the curriculum.  If you don’t understand the foundations of STEM, STEAM can seem like it’s slapping on some paint to a more substantive lesson.

For those who make this assumption, they are missing the point.  STEAM and STEM are two-sides of the same coin.  Both explore inquiry, connections and integration.  Both deepen the learning opportunities by teaching and assessing standards-based content.  Each content can stand alone and work together when intentionally paired. But it’s all about intention.

It’s time to finally let go of this idea that STEAM is simply a subset of STEM that adds some “fun” and “creative” activities to a STEM project. It diminishes the value of both STEM and the arts to do so.

Why Even Bother?

If the perspective is that STEAM can happen just by adding some arts components at the end of a STEM lesson, what’s the point?  Why spend all this time asking teachers to add one more teaching approach to their toolkit?


When the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in 2015, there was a component that includes support to schools that provide a well-rounded education through programs that integrate academic subject areas, including the arts, into STEM. This means that if you have a STEAM initiative, you can use federal dollars to support it.

Suddenly schools are interested in using STEAM, but are unclear of what it really is because of the lack of training.  We have schools who are trying to figure all this out on their own, and teachers who have one more thing on their overflowing plate.

Turning the Corner

So what do we do?  First, we’ve got to get clear on what STEAM really is and how it can be used to impact students.  First off, STEAM includes all of the arts – not just visual art.  It can connect with music, theater, dance and media arts as well.  And it’s an approach – not a cute project or an after-school program.  It’s a way of connecting across standards to help students get curious, explore multiple means of problem solving and use their own access points to create new solutions.

The arts are at the heart of it all.  The arts have proven time and again to provide opportunities for students to tap into their unlimited potential.  Ask any arts teacher and you’ll find that they often see strengths in a student that other teachers miss.  It’s our job and privilege as educators to help each student rise to their potential using their strengths and their challenges.  Working in and through the arts gives us an access point for doing so.

Second, let’s recognize that there is a time and place for both STEM and STEAM.  We need to stop pitting these approaches against each other and instead, use each when it’s most appropriate for our students’ overall learning.  Let’s keep the focus on what makes the biggest impact for students.

It’s also important to understand that teachers will be uncomfortable using a content area in which they are unfamiliar. This is true for both content teachers and arts teachers.  It’s unfair to assume a classroom or content teacher can just add an arts standard to a lesson and be ready to use it with their students.  It’s also unfair to expect an arts teacher to teach math or science in their classroom without any background or training in that area.  To truly make STEAM work, we need to invest in supporting our teachers with ongoing and relevant professional development.

Lastly, much of this falls to leadership.  You can expect pushback from teachers and parents who don’t understand STEAM.  It’s our job as leaders to step into that discomfort with them.  To acknowledge that this process of using multiple content areas, integrating standards and ensuring integrity to each area is difficult.  And to do it anyway.  As leaders, we need to walk right along side our teachers and parents in the learning process if we want to see our students thrive using STEAM.

Taking the Next Step

Let me be blunt: if you are looking to develop a STEAM program but are concerned there’s too much art instruction, you need to reevaluate whether you really want to move in this direction.  You will never see the research-backed benefits of integrating the arts if you don’t actually teach in and through the arts.

STEM programs can be effective on their own.  So can STEAM initiatives.  But don’t cheapen either one for the sake of comfort or budgets. Our students, teachers and communities deserve better.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan