What it Really Means

We tend to attribute symbolic meaning to the acronyms we use in our daily life. I was think about the meaning behind the educational philosophy of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and the recent capitulation of educational leaders to add the letter A.

A stands for Art, and adding it turns STEM into STEAM.

A minor change in terms, yet the meaning is profound. A stem, according to the dictionary is “ the ascending axis of a plant,” or the origin or cause of a thing. At least physically, a stem is always grounded in the earth.

Whether a flower or tree, the stem reaches for the sun and roots itself in the soil. It is the support system and backbone, carrying the weight of branches, leaves and flowers. But it is immobile.

Steam, on the other hand, is an “invisible vapor into which water is converted when heated to the boiling point.” Steam is water which has become free of the earth, air born, an ethereal mist, shape-shifting and mysterious. Steam, though immaterial, is also powerful! The industrial age was born of it.

What STEM offers in terms of order, structure, and growth opportunities, unfortunately, it lacks in grace. So, the simple addition of the letter A to an educational acronym, as well as the simple act of adding Art to the Science/Tech mix, could be just what is needed to round out the system, to add that missing ingredient: grace.

If treated seriously, STEAM has the power to catapult the education system and society at large into a new and powerful way of thinking about our future.

“Art + Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.”

To rise above the already astonishing landscape we have built, to add other dimensions, depth, and character, we need the wings of creativity and imagination. To grow beyond the industrial age that has grounded us in materialist opportunity, but also greed and waste, we need the wholeness and harmony that the arts contribute.

A balance of nature and culture, science and art, brawn and beauty is what allows us to be bold, build amazing things, yet also be introspective, and to add meaning, fun, and beauty to the things we make and do.

As the White House education plan describes the purpose of the program, “Maintaining America’s historical preeminence in the STEM fields will require a concerted and inclusive effort to ensure that the STEM workforce is equipped with the skills and training needed to excel in these fields.”
photo credit: jemolesky