The Difference Between STEM and Maker Education

Chances are, you're already familiar with the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). But what about STEAM ? STEAM is STEM + the Arts. By adding the arts, teachers create an essential tool for attracting students who otherwise would have found more traditional STEM education inaccessible.

To integrate arts into STEM, the educators we interviewed are finding success with maker education.

Adding the A to STEM with Maker Education

"It's room for artistic expression and student ownership," said Patrick Benfield, STEAM and makerspace director at St. Gabriel's School in Austin, Texas. "With STEAM it's the sense that these things aren't siloed. It's all mixed together in different proportions. That's how the world is — it's complex."

By adding the arts, teachers create an essential tool for attracting students who otherwise would have found more traditional STEM education inaccessible.

Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher at the Kensico School in Valhalla, New York, added that "STEAM opens up a whole new level of creativity." One way that this manifested for Singh was in doing marketing for his school's robotics teams. The students had to come up with a slogan and poster.

For Kristi Merchant, library media specialist at George Washington Carver Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, integrating maker education and STEAM means allowing for greater student choice. For instance, when she's working directly with the art teacher, building in a STEM element can make the arts more accessible to students who are computer minded. The art teacher sends these students down to the library makerspace so that they can do their painting digitally. In this way, making helps STEM-focused students unlock their artistic sides.

And it works the other way too.

"You have those kids that are artistically inclined anyway," Merchant said. "So you give them this little 'in' to STEM and they love it. If you told them they had to read a regular book they would protest, but with a graphic book they love it. The same philosophy applies to makerspace activities."

Merchant finds that the art that comes so naturally through maker projects helps her and her teachers come up with richer projects to help promote STEM learning.

"This past year I got to attend the Oklahoma Art Institute's [program] on the history of photography and we learned how they first started making prints. The movie 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' had just come out, and the author collects strange and unusual photos to use as characters for his books. So we're going to make the 'Peculiar Children of Carver,' and we're going to use the apps on the iPad to edit the photographs."

Here you have a great example of STEAM: In Merchant's makerspace, students will find themselves inspired by art, they'll get to take photos and write stories about them, and then they'll also use iPad technology to edit the photographs, thereby getting to practice the "T" and the "E" in STEM.

The educators we interviewed had other great examples of maker projects that accomplished their STEAM objective.

What STEAM Looks Like in Maker Classrooms

1. Line Drawing Robots and "Charlotte's Web"

One of Benfield's favorite experiences was a project he did with a third-grade teacher whose students were reading "Charlotte's Web." Using robots called Ozobots , which can be programmed to draw lines and colors, students drew the book's characters so they could retell "Charlotte's Web."

"The art and design piece came from what they were reading," Benfied said, "but they were using these elements of computer science, persisting, and trial and error — failing but with low-risk stakes."

2. Lego Robot Recyclers

Singh started with a more traditional STEM project, Lego robotics. He created a competition where students built robots and competed to make the strongest ones. Then he had his students approach the project from a different angle: He had students make recycling robots.

"Now they have a little campus that represents our school and they have to move those things that represent recyclables to a 'recycling depot,' " Singh said. "I give them the training they need to solve the problem, and then it's up to them to design, build, market their robot — with a team name and slogan."

In this way, STEAM allows Singh to frame his STEM projects in a more practical, real-world setting, so that students are not only developing the STEM skills they need, but they are also doing so in a way that will be applicable to and integrated with the needs of the real world.

Regardless of whether or not a teacher takes a project in a STEAM direction, maker education is about a design mentality.

Maker education is about a design mentality.

"We're looking closely at things, exploring the complexity of systems, lifting the veil on how things work — things we use, the spaces we're in, people, the environment — so that they understand it better," Benfield said. "Then they can do something about it, personalize it, make it more beautiful. We'll work with LEDs, motors, electronics as a means to develop those dispositions and [as a means of] empowerment so that when we're working with something high-tech, it's not magic — it's a piece of technology they understand. That transfers to everything else they interact with."