STEM vs. STEAM vs. Arts Integration:

A Comparison Guide for Educators

7 Min Read  •  STEAM Education

When considering whether a lesson qualifies as STEM vs. STEAM vs. Arts Integration, it can seem a little overwhelming. Each approach has similarities, and often, these similarities are enough to use these terms interchangeably. However, each of these methods has its own set of characteristics and purposes for use. In this short guide, we’ll share how each method approaches a set of foundational elements, as well as the similarities and differences between each method.

Which Method Should Be Used?

Before diving into this chart, it’s important to note that one of these methods is not greater than another. While many pundits still argue whether STEM “should” or “shouldn’t” evolve into STEAM, that’s not really the point. Each method has value and brings a specific focus of integration work to the table.

The key understanding is that each method has a set of characteristics and intentions for use. Our job as educators is to understand each method and intentionally select the option that best addresses the needs of our students and community stakeholders.

Comparison Chart

One easy way to understand each option and make those intentional selections is through this at-a-glance STEM vs. STEAM vs. Arts Integration comparison chart. Each row identifies a foundational characteristic of the methods. And each column explores how each method expresses itself within those characterstics.

STEM vs. STEAM comparison chart


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Let’s take a deeper look at each approach individually, and then investigate how they relate to each other.

The STEM Approach

STEM is an educational approach with intentionally integrates science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to create real-world learning opportunities through investigations, problem-solving, and evidence-based explanations. This definition is based on variations found by the National Science Teaching Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and research-based conceptual frameworks for STEM education.

As an approach, STEM provides a direct connection to 2 or more STEM content areas and both are meant to be assessed in the lesson. This sometimes happens in true STEM lessons, but often, this part of the approach is not done with fidelity.

In general, STEM focuses on developing higher-level thinking skills by connecting classroom learning to the real-world through hands-on investigations. This supports the overall STEM purpose of integrating STEM content areas through naturally-aligned standards to explore a point of inquiry.

The STEAM Approach

STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. This definition from the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM has been recognized as one of the leading definitions for STEAM education and has been cited in almost 300 different research publications.

As an approach, STEAM provides a direct connection to naturally-aligned STEM content and arts standards (which includes all of the arts), and both are meant to be assessed in the lesson. While the connections described are often seen in STEAM lessons, the assessments of both the STEM and arts content is not always visible.

In general, STEAM focuses on a process-driven experience through inquiry, design, and creativity. The process leads to the product through a discovery focus. This supports the overall STEAM purpose of integrating any STEM area with another arts area through naturally-aligned standards to explore a point of inquiry.

The Arts Integration Approach

Arts integration is an approach to teaching and learning through which content is taught and assessed equitably in and through the arts. This arts integration definition was created by The Institute after 10 years of working in the field with teachers, schools and districts.

As an approach, arts integration provides a direct connection to naturally-aligned content and arts standards, and both are meant to be assessed in the lesson. This is the approach where both of these components – the standards connection and the aligned assessments – are most often seen.

In general, arts integration focuses on deepening learning, application, and creativity through a connective experience. This supports the overal arts integration purpose of integrating the arts and any other content area through naturally-aligned standards.

Similarities between STEM, STEAM, and Arts Integration

Looking at the above chart, you’ll start to notice some key similarities between these approaches. First, all three reference direct connections to aligned standards. What’s interesting is that this is often what most integrated lessons miss. Simply connecting to another area isn’t enough; there must be a standards connection for it to be considered STEM, STEAM, or Arts Integration.

Another similarity between all three surrounds their purposes. While not the same, each one explores integration and connection in some way. STEM is integrated between any 2 contents of Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math. For example, a lesson connecting a science standard and a math standard would be considered STEM.

In STEAM, this connection is between any STEM content standard and an Arts content standard. For example, a lesson connecting math and music would be considered STEAM.

In Arts Integration, the connection is more broad and could be between any content and arts standard. So a connection between a reading and a visual art standard would qualify as arts integration.

A big note here: literacy is woven into everything. When we explore each content area directly, we become literate in that content. So we learn how to read a scientific diagram or write a geometric proof. So just because we’re not directly connecting to reading or writing skills in STEM or STEAM doesn’t mean we’re not including literacy.

Differences between STEM, STEAM, and Arts Integration

The biggest differences between these three approaches are within the intention and focus of each. Which goes back to the beginning of this article when we explored the debate between STEM, STEAM and Arts Integration. It’s really about what your intention is for the lesson and then selecting the approach that best meets that intention.

For STEM, the purpose is to focus on real-world learning through hands-on investigations and projects. Whereas in STEAM, it’s more about the process. We’re asking students to discover a problem through inquiry and then design a solution through creativity. This process leads to an end product which can then be refined based on feedback. Finally, in arts integration, we’re focused on building connections across a variety of content areas to deepen learning and provide an opportunity for students to apply what they’ve learned in each content area in a new way.

Ready for your Next Move?

Now that you know the similarities and differences between STEM, STEAM, and Arts Integration, you can select the approach that’s right for you. What’s great is that you don’t have to choose just one! You can explore each of the approaches throughout the year and watch students grow and learn in new ways.

If you’re interested in diving into this topic even deeper and are a school administrator or instructional coach, consider getting your STEAM Certification for Leaders. You’ll learn how to take this new understanding of STEAM and apply it to building or scaling the program in your school or district. Be sure to get on the waitlist for when this certification launches in October, 2022.