February 08, 2021

STEM vs STEAM: Empowering the youth through education

By Marius Burger, CIO at SEACOM

In our rapidly-changing world, education also needs to evolve in order to keep up with emerging technologies. The skill sets that are needed in the 21st century include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), not to mention problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Educating our youth in STEM subjects has become imperative if they are to be equipped for the demands of the future. Including the arts (STEAM), enables today’s youth to develop their creative skills, as well as learning how to collaborate.

Digging deeper into the discussion around STEM vs STEAM, we can uncover their similarities and differences. The STE(A)M approach to education is starting to become a non-negotiable for the youth of today. The skills and knowledge taught through STEM and STEAM enable learners to tap into their digital potential, bringing the South African workforce into the digital economy.


STEM is revolutionising education all around the world. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are taught as integrated skills, equipping learners with multidisciplinary knowledge and digital literacy. These sought-after skills can propel learners in their future careers.

By adding the arts, STEAM includes languages, social science, humanities, drama, visual arts, music, new media and design. By incorporating these disciplines, advocates for STEAM believe it offers an even more well-rounded and interdisciplinary approach, giving learners the skills for creative and critical thinking.

Science forms the basis of both STEM and STEAM and aims to prepare learners for jobs in this sector. Having a well-trained, digitised workforce means better employment opportunities in scientific fields. Jobs in these industries are in demand.

By developing creativity through the combination of art and science (STEAM), new connections and discoveries can be made. Just as with STEM, STEAM uses a scientific approach, but incorporates creative thinking in order to investigate scientific concepts. Problem-solving and connecting ideas in innovative ways is what STEAM hopes to achieve.

Preparing the youth for The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) needs workers who have 21st century skills. These include critical thinking, problem-solving, creative confidence, collaboration and innovation. By teaching these essential skills in schools, we can empower our youth through education, creating a future workforce that is able to tackle real-life issues and ask questions like “What if...?”

The inclusion of arts into the STEM curriculum opens up more opportunities in terms of career paths, especially those requiring interdisciplinary skills. Students are able to learn through creativity, making discoveries and finding the overlaps between science and art, giving them a toolkit of future-proof skills. STEAM is a better reflection of real-life.

“The most important skill in the world” has been identified as creativity by LinkedIn. According to the World Economic Forum, creativity was ranked third out of the ten skills workers need to excel in the 4IR. Creativity is a precursor to complex problem-solving and critical thinking.

The World Economic Forum’s report on The Future of Jobs explains, “With the avalanche of new products, new technologies, and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative to benefit from these changes.” Forbes has also credited creativity as one of ten most crucial skills needed for the future workforce, and one the most essential skills businesses are currently after.

At present, artificial intelligence (AI) is being increasingly integrated into workplaces, offering digital solutions. Creativity will be what sets us apart from AI technology. Sean Dorrance Kelly, an American philosopher, asserts that robots cannot compete with human creativity: “Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence.”

The creative process has formed the basis of many inventions and developments in technology, science and engineering. To illustrate, think about the computer screen you are looking at. Without creativity, Karl Ferdinand Braun, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, would not have been able to invent the first CRT (cathode-ray tube) in 1897 - an invention that paved the way for computer screen technology.

Creativity is essential for innovation. Any business that is future-looking knows how essential this skill is for innovation and growth.

Digital transformation of education

STEAM has activated a thirst for knowledge across many disciplines, motivating children of different ages to look for innovative and creative solutions. There are a number of examples of this happening around the world. Research into STE(A)M conducted by the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education showed how the art of co-creating can be used.

In this study, professors and 12-year-olds worked together to code and represent mathematics through music. A similar approach was taken by researchers in the Mind over Music programme, which paired up musicians and teachers to develop a curriculum which integrates music and STEM concepts. Students taking part in both these programs have had significantly better results in science and maths compared to students who were not part of the programmes.

Explora, an experiential learning centre in New Mexico, provides numerous interactive activities and exhibits in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Ingenuity and creativity are promoted in this art-inclusive version of STEM. Children in California can attend The Bay Area Discovery Museum where they are invited to join projects and lessons that have a design, art and STEM focus. Students are encouraged to develop their skills in a multidisciplinary way.

STEAM brings together the arts and more technical subjects, challenging the misconception that students are either good at maths and science, or they are good at the arts and humanities. By fusing together these different disciplines, children are taught how to think about the world in a more open-minded, inclusive and multifaceted way.

Both STEM and STEAM encourage learners to develop their digital literacy so they are prepared for the future, able to engage with digital transformation - something that is essential for South Africa and Africa as a whole.

In spite of the myriad benefits that STEAM education provides, only about 5% of South African schools offer art as a Matric subject, according to the Arts and Ubuntu Trust, a South African non-profit. Empowering learners to be digitally and technologically competent is imperative if education is to create a workforce that understands technical subjects, as well as being able to come up with creative innovations for shaping the future.

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