Two Male University Students Building Machine In Science Robotics Or Engineering Class

Explore the differences between STEM and STEAM. While STEM provides a distilled curricular focus on the core: science, technology, engineering, and math, STEAM adds an additional level of creativity through the arts.

STEM vs. STEAM – What’s the Difference? 




What do the acronyms stand for in terms of subject matter? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.

Why are these subjects integrated? Subjects, when you think about it, are by nature highly integrated. Many fields require an interdisciplinary understanding and application of all of the various subjects, not just as separate subject matter. Let’s take aviation for example, it requires an in-depth understanding of all four aspects of STEM. The same holds true in scientific work in medicine and research, where it is imperative to understand the principles and practices of each of these disciplines. Almost every profession has some direct or indirect applications where STEM or STEAM plays a role or helps develop critical and creative thinking.

Why do so many schools now focus on STEM/STEAM? Public and private schools, as well as colleges and universities, have become increasingly aware of the growing demand in STEM related fields. In order to prepare students to advance their education and pursue productive careers, STEM/STEAM programs are absolutely essential to deliver a well-rounded education.

Why did they add the arts? The STEM Education Guide indicates “Advocates point to the added innovation and fearless creativity that a strong artistic foundation can provide. The president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a leading advocate for the integration of the arts into STEM, says that opening the door to the arts aids in the process of turning critical thinking into critical making.” In order to innovate and be leaders in key fields, it is essential to offer educational opportunities that exercise both the creative and analytical aspects of the brain.

Why are the arts more limited now in public schools? In short, it is about funding. Jen McDonald from KM Perform notes that “When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act) was passed, it put more focus in schools on core subjects like math and reading. Because of the focus on these subjects, schools are forwarding more money to the areas that require standardized testing in order to keep the scores high. The NCLB Act caused schools to focus on grades and test scores, while pushing the funds to keep those numbers high. Arts classes that required schools to purchase supplies for students were cut first, leading to a huge drop in arts opportunities in schools.” The arts are finding their way back into some public and charter schools; however, most private day schools and boarding schools never cut back on the arts. They tend to view the visual and performing arts as integral to a life and college preparatory education.

What are some of the top private boarding schools in California with STEM/STEAM? Niche includes the following private schools on the west coast: The Harker School (San Jose), Thacher (Ojai), Cate (Carpinteria), and The Webb Schools (Claremont). Sometimes overlooked in the boarding school category, you might want to check out military academies. For example, Army & Navy Academy (Carlsbad), is a boarding and day college prep school geared exclusively for boys in grades 7-12. They offer a rigorous U.C. standard based curriculum, but they also offer visual and performing arts electives. Due to their boy-centric approach, they offer STEM elective courses that are highly popular with boys, including: aviation, cyber security, and unmanned aerial systems, as well as visual and performing arts (VPA), including: band, music technology, photography, visual art, ANA TV, and drama.

What are some of the top private (day) schools in Southern California for STEM? According to Niche, the list includes: The Bishops School (San Diego), Harvard-Westlake School (Los Angeles), Lick-Wilmerding (San Francisco), Head Royce School (Oakland), Polytechnic (Pasadena), Wesley College Preparatory School (Ontario), Sage Hill School (Newport Coast). Francis Parker School (San Diego), Chadwick School (Palos Verdes Peninsula), Pacific Ridge School (Carlsbad), Fairmont Preparatory Academy (Anaheim), La Jolla Country Day (La Jolla) and many others.

What are the best public or charter schools in Southern California for STEM/STEAM?

Here are some schools to research if you decide to stay within the public school system in Southern California: University High (irvine), Troy High School (Fullerton), Canyon Crest High School (San Dieguito), San Marino High School (San Marino), and High Tech High (San Diego).

Importance of STEM in High School 

Here are some of the benefits that will help you understand the importance of STEM in high school, but also at every level of education.

  • Interdisciplinary Education – In elementary school, subjects were often unified and not compartmentalized like they are in many high schools and in higher education. In response to this “silo” effect, some secondary schools have become increasingly focused on an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, according to UCSD, here are some facts about integrating the arts and physical activity to improve outcomes. “Students who had arts-rich experiences in high school showed higher overall GPAs than students who lacked those experiences. Students who study music 50 minutes per day outperform their peers on math tests. Even just 20 minutes of recess or physical activity is proven to help students focus in class and perform at higher levels.”
  • Real World Learning – When students “connect the dots” in class to real world applications, they have a much higher tendency to engage and become motivated to learn. Some top boarding schools offer career-oriented electives and clubs to inspire and motivate students to pursue their passions and interests. By allowing students an interactive hands-on approach, some schools truly lean into the subject area intersections and stimulate the kind of mental engagement to draw meaningful connections to the real world.
  • Prepares Students for New Occupations – Due to the dynamic changes in various fields, it is not surprising that some occupations are disappearing, while whole other new fields are emerging. To put this in context, according to the Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are “growing at 24%, while other occupations are growing at 4%.” This is a significant difference and points out the clear demand that is happening for professional development and training in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Addresses Globalization – Beyond a diverse international mix of students at boarding schools, The National Science Foundation points out that “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”
  • Increases Equality – It may not seem evident at first, but focusing on STEM education for all students, opens doors and creates a more equal playing field in math and scientific fields. Regardless of gender or ethnicity, if all students receive an education in these areas, they will be better prepared to succeed in college and pursue careers in these areas. This creates greater access and mobility to higher incomes in high-demand professions.
  • Improves Motivation – It has been cited by a number of different research articles that boys are now falling behind girls in terms of college degrees. STEM education is aligned with how boys learn in terms of their interest in exploration, experimentation, and hands-on learning. Ultimately, it will elevate their chances to graduate, improve their grades, and go to college. Likewise, for girls, who were often on the periphery of specific STEM fields due to their gender, this will reduce the implicit or explicit biases found in some institutions. It will allow for greater diversity in a broad range of occupations, such as: medicine, scientific research, computer science, cyber security, aviation, engineering, and many other fields.
  • Boosts College Matriculation – When students engage and pursue their interests while they are in high school within a STEAM or STEM education model, the likelihood of attending college typically increases. As you research schools, ensure you check their college matriculation data. Ideally, if they offer a robust STEAM/STEM education, it will include top universities, including: Stanford, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Columbia, Rutgers, Georgetown, NYU, USC, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, UCSB, UCI, and other prestigious public and private universities.
  • Strengthens World Leadership – Any country wishing to hold a position as a world leader will need to ensure their citizens have equal access to a STEM or STEAM education. To keep pace, the U.S. must prepare citizens to innovate and contribute to these growing fields. It will ensure individual, as well as collective growth and development in America.

As you research schools, bear in mind that public and private schools vary widely. Consider all options as you review different options for your teenager. Middle school and high school is such a formative time and will shape not only your child’s college major, but lifelong career pursuits. Explore private day schools, day/boarding schools, military academies, and other options. Learn more about Army and Navy Academy boarding school.


Reference Sources: Engineering for Kids (LaunchLife Family of Companies), Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, University of California-San Diego, STEM Education Guide, Niche.