STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths. It is a way of introducing creative, problem-solving learning methods into the world of scientific concepts.
Education starts early for a reason: it puts the foundations in place upon which a child can build their learning and their social skills. STEAM introduces valuable interactive learning experiences into early learning settings.
This can have a positive impact further down the line, helping to shape the education and careers of pupils by broadening their interests and opportunities.
Girls are currently closing the gender gap in maths and physics:
• GCSE results in 2019 show 15.2% of girls taking maths were awarded a 7,8, or 9 (the equivalent of A or A*) This is up from 14.7% in 2018.
• At the same time, the proportion of top grades among boys has fallen from 16.8% to 16.6%. The gap between boys and girls is now just 1.4 percentage points.
This is good news overall, because the UK has a widely reported skills shortage when it comes to science and technology.
There is also a gender imbalance in engineering and technology careers, and the evidence is that this prejudice is programmed into girls from a young age.
One solution would be a broader education that extended for longer, mixing humanities with sciences, rather than forcing pupils to choose between disciplines and narrowing their learning.
The benefit of the STEAM approach is that it recognises the value of this broader mix of subjects.
STEAM adds to the concept of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in education. It does this by including the A in arts.
Why should this make such a difference?
The Arts element in STEAM is about incorporating creative thinking and applied arts into the learning process, helping to present and explain ideas and encourage participation.
This is how children learn with STEAM:
Children learn from others and by example, just as scientists do. They watch other children and adults, see what they do, and learn by trying to repeat these things. They ask questions and see the results. They try and see how the world works by taking a series of steps. This is the scientific method.
In its most basic form, the scientific method also applies to the learning behaviours of infants and toddlers. They look for patterns and theories, even if they are unaware that that is what they are doing.
Technology is any kind of man-made object. At an early learning stage, this might be simple tools such as levers or scissors.
When children play, they use technology, such as wheels, ramps, pulleys and stairs. This supports their cognitive development, because they experience and witness cause and effect close up.
This kind of basic technology shows children how to accomplish things or make things run faster, slower, or easier, like a wheel on a ramp
Engineering is problem-solving by applying science, technology and maths. It involves using materials to design and build things to see how they work.
You can see this when children use building blocks or put objects together to form structures. These can be anything from a den in the living room to a sandcastle.
The focus on Arts is about the creative mindset and an emphasis on self-driven discovery, creativity in problem solving and investigation.
When children involve themselves in painting, drawing, in play and pretending, then they are expressing what they feel and what they know. They will do this before they learn to read and write.
Having early experience of creativity and creative arts helps children develop self-esteem and cognitive recognition. As children develop in art, they learn to use symbols to represent real objects, feelings and events. Another aspect of arts, music, has direct links with pattern recognition and other STEAM skills.
Children are exposed to, and explore, everyday mathematics. They discover what more and less mean, and find out about different shapes, sizes, volumes and distances through interactive play and activity.
Babies will explore geometry and spatial relationships simply by putting things in their mouths, while toddlers and young children are exposed to mathematical concepts through everyday objects and actions.
When children play, they are engaging with the world around them, using the basic skills associated with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
They will begin to use these skills very early on.
When a baby grabs different objects, it learns the difference between hard and soft. When it picks up a toy and drops it, it learns about gravity.
Even at this early stage, the child is discovering the rules that govern what it can and cannot do, and how it interacts with the world around it.
Exposing children to new materials and situations sparks their natural curiosity, and letting them explore these things helps them learn.
Play becomes more important to children as they grow, and this involves natural learning through practical experience and involvement.
A lot of this play involves mathematical thinking and language. They want to know how much a lot, or a little means. They will demonstrate bigger dimensions by opening their arms wide, or putting their fingers close together to show smallness.
They are natural problem-solvers. This makes them take an active role in how they learn, creating, testing and modifying theories on their own.
Children want to see what will happen next.
Along with problem-solving come other skills, such as organisation, planning and decision-making.
Children learn to switch between tasks when playing, and they learn how to regulate their behaviour, their emotions and memory while engaging in tasks.
As they see more cause and effect relationships, they learn that the world around them is not always reliable, and this contributes to the data they are storing up about the world.
They are flexible learners, and they can see patterns in the data they collect from their experiences and what they observe.
If early learning plays a crucial role in developing STEAM learning, then it is also vital that this creates a momentum that builds as the child develops.
Creativity, in this regard, is as important as literacy.
But while children are naturally curious, it is also the responsibility of the adults and educators around them to foster this engagement with the world and with others.
Schools can give children an excellent grounding in arts and music, for example, but how do they help these develop in a real world context?
The brain is not just a muscle to exercise. It also needs the stimulation of curiosity to spark exploration.
And the more this happens, the more likely that children will be open to more possibilities and to tackling a broader range of academic subjects later in their educational journey.
Which, ultimately, brings us back to closing the gender gap in science and technology, and in addressing the UK’s skill shortage.
A continuous focus on STEAM can inspire children and help them keep focused on each stage of their learning and development.
In What’s The Point of School?, the Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning, Guy Claxton, looks at the limitations of test-based education, and how to encourage real learning through a curriculum that is relevant to them.
There is a gap between what children learn in school and what they need to learn to thrive in the real world.
STEAM can help bridge this gap, and it can provide a lasting legacy.
"I was fortunate enough to experience a great STEAM offering when I was at Primary School - and I know that had a significant role helping me into the career I have today.
But I know that's unfortunately not the case for every EYFS pupil, which is why I'm inspired to make sure everyone, girl, SEN pupil, or simply those who thrive better outside of a traditional classroom environment, can access the equal STEAM learning and play opportunities. So that in years to come, we can say "what gender gap?".
Whether or not their futures lead them to STEAM, they may find a new interest or hobby - and every pupil will build core motor, problem-solving, social and creativity skills."
Much of STEAM learning does not take place in the conventional classroom. It thrives when children engage in free play and when you give them the opportunity to explore materials and make their own discoveries.
Some guidance, however, can also be useful. If children see something happening, help them to notice the relationship between the objects involved.
For example, why does a ball go faster when the ramp is steeper?
Language is important here. Asking children open-ended questions helps them explore, and they can even do this non-verbally, at a very early age.
This language is all to do with the scientific method: questioning, predicting outcomes, discussing and experimenting.
Another key aspect of STEAM learning is problem-solving. Even in play, a child might be trying to do something.
By asking them what they are trying to do, what they did and what they noticed about this, you help to encourage further problem-solving.
Maths is a central part of STEAM learning, because children use mathematical concepts during play.
The right questions reinforce this:
• How many?
• How often?
• Which is bigger?
• Which is smaller?
• How fast?
• How far?
STEAM learning includes basic concepts such as measurements, distances, speed and volume.
Encourage creativity and be non-judgemental. Asking children about something they have drawn or made helps discover what they are thinking. Open-ended questions also help them develop their own communication skills when considering the question and putting together answers.
Asking them about their creative process also helps them think more creatively.
There are certain practical tips to encourage STEAM learning:
Use materials that will engage the senses, including textures, colours and even different tasting foods
Design activities that will get children to ask questions to do with basic skills such as measuring and weighing, or identifying steps in a process, or putting things in certain order
Use the outdoors and nature for exploration and discovery, and ask questions about elements such as shape, colour and texture
Play games that involve participation such as clapping, rhyming or different movements, like Simon Says
Make sure there is a good amount of open-ended time for children to engage with each other and the world around them.
The right playground equipment can inspire and enable STEAM learning:
Climbing structures with ropes, pulleys, ramps, slides and swings support STEAM thinking, while fully involving children in play.
Sand, water and messy play areas provide the raw materials for children to explore and experiment with.
Sensory and interactive equipment encourages creativity, problem-solving and other interaction.
Musical instruments provide rhythm and repetition, and help in recognising patterns and systems.
Natural play areas help children engage in and learn from nature and their surroundings.
All these things can help create an environment that nurtures and encourages STEAM development, enriching early learning and laying foundations for the future.