STEAM education is STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) infused with the Arts. The popularity of STEAM education in the U.S. is well-documented and has been advocated for by congressmen and women, celebrities, and in social media. We, the authors, who recently took part in a local project implementing STEAM education at the elementary school level, wanted to ground our proposed teacher professional development and classroom implementation in the relevant research. Our initial impression was that despite a lot of good will, resources, and funding towards STEAM education, a strong research base confirming the effectiveness of STEAM education at the elementary school level did not exist.
We conducted a systematic review of the literature to investigate the issue by searching 13 data bases and using 15 search terms. Our inclusion criteria specified that STEAM education was the major focus of the article or dissertation, was mentioned specifically in the title or abstract, and was not just mentioned peripherally somewhere in the body of the text. Additionally, studies had to be published in the year 2000 or later and had to be written in English.
Our initial criteria yielded surprisingly few hits. Due to the lack of research found, the search was then expanded to middle school and high school research as well as research done at more of a descriptive, implementation level in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. It was quickly discovered that many of the articles were conducted in the context of Asian schooling, with a closer reading revealing that the vast majority were Korean. The Korean government has taken a very keen interest in STEAM education, with the Korean Ministry of Education issuing an edict proclaiming STEAM education a national priority in 2011 (Jon & Chung, 2014). The search, even after it was expanded, produced only about 50 studies in total. About half were from the U.S. and Western world and about half were from Korea. Results indicate some progress in determining the effectiveness of STEAM education in qualitative and quantitative studies, with Korean research leading the way in quantitative studies. Overall, studies were innovative and covered a broad range of STEAM topics; however, more rigorous research is needed.
There are potential reasons for the lack of STEAM education research. First, goals and long-term outcomes of STEAM education appear to be less clear than those for STEM education. Second, many aren’t convinced of the necessity of STEAM education, as there exists in educational circles a STEM/STEAM debate. Those on the side of STEM feel that STEAM over-complicates and weakens a STEM intervention and that engineers and scientists are already innovative (Jolly, 2014). Despite the debates and language barriers, we feel it is important to continue the discussion on American and Korean STEAM education research that some American and Korean researchers have started (Kim & Bolger, 2015; Yakman and Lee, 2012) and to build the case more conclusively for the need for STEAM education at the elementary school level.