Concern about the arts could dilute an important national effort focused appropriately on science and technology, writes Gary S. May.

March 30, 2015

The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.

No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.

The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.

STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.

Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.

We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.

I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.


Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.


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