What is STEAM Anyway?
By Mary Poarch

In the last couple of years, the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or sometimes STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) has come up in the world, and especially in education. However, it is an idea that I have been engaged with for more than 20 years. In this time, I have seen STEM/STEAM change from a simple description of the disciplines that students take in school to an integrated way of looking at learning. In my experiences with STEM/STEAM, the definition may vary somewhat, but there is always a key term – integration. STEM/STEAM curriculum education blends these disciplines. It’s a unified approach that provides hands-on experiences and affords students the chance to learn to solve problems, gather and evaluate evidences, make sense of information, and communicate what they have learned. These skills are taught in all disciplines; however, they are strongly emphasized in the STEM/STEAM classes.

As a department chair in science at Saint Mary’s Hall, I see STEM/STEAM as a natural way of learning across all divisions; it is part of our culture.  To illustrate this:

I believe that STEM/STEAM learning should start early, like it does at SMH. For example, when I visit with our youngest students in the Lower School, I observe them happily participating in authentic science and engineering; asking questions; using the tools that professional scientists use; having the conversations that professional scientists have; using technology, mathematics, robotics, and the arts; and developing the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. All of this is happening in dedicated STEM/STEAM spaces, such as classroom laboratories and the SMH Collaboratory, a space in the library where Lower School students can explore STEM/STEAM-related activities.

The location of my classroom allows me to observe learning outside of the designed spaces as well. I can watch Kindergarten students examining bluebonnets in the spring, Form 1 students taking nature walks, and any number of impromptu investigations walking to and from the dining hall … STEM/STEAM in the real, beautiful world of SMH.

I watch our Middle School students delving into more stimulating and challenging STEM/STEAM concepts. Because I teach in the Middle School, I have first-hand observations of the students every day. Not just in my classes, but the entire division. I see students participating in authentic STEM/STEAM in the greenhouse, on the sidewalks, robotics fields, and in the courtyards. It happens everywhere! Increased opportunities like robotics, the Environmental Club, and early access to Algebra I (long considered a “gateway” course for advanced mathematics and science) are available to all students. Our Middle School students are blossoming as thinkers, problem-solvers, and communicators.

It is very evident to me that this STEM/STEAM curriculum from Lower to Upper School provides benefits beyond what we originally thought. Upper School students are active, invested, and happy as they dig deeper into STEM/STEAM. They have a multitude of options: traditional courses and clubs, plus robotics, engineering, computer science, and astrophysics classes to explore personal interests. When I walk through the Upper School classrooms, students are discussing current issues in biology, preparing to test water in Salado Creek, demonstrating pH through art, controlling a NASA telescope with a computer, or getting ready to check bee hives. They are well on their way to becoming independent problem-solvers, thinkers, and communicators.  They are ready for success in college and fulfillment in life.

How can parents and teachers encourage STEM/STEAM? Provide hands-on experiences and interesting problems to solve. Go outside; have children make observations and ask questions, and figure out a way to answer those questions. Let students “tinker” - Legos, blocks, arts and crafts supplies – all allow for problem-solving and innovation. Take field trips; visit the DoSeum,Witte Museum, the or Botanical Center and Zoo. STEM/STEAM is all around us.

Mary Poarch


About Mary: Mary Poarch is the Marrs and Verna McLean Master Chair of Science and Form 6 Science Teacher at Saint Mary’s Hall, She has more than 35 years in education. She is married and has one son – who is also a science teacher. 

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