*In some ways, STEM is an odd basket of subjects. Engineering is barely taught in schools because the fundamentals rely on physics and mathematics. Traditionally, we teach students these fundamentals first before they develop specialisms at university. This is because we view these disciplines hierarchically. However, many initiatives seeks to involve students in solving real world engineering problems as a way of promoting STEM. This is again based upon an interest-first view that if students see the relevance of STEM to everyday life then they will be motivated to study it.
*There are many risks to adopting such an approach. Chief among these is the risk that students may not develop self-efficacy as a result and may become demotivated. We know, for instance, that problem-based teaching methods are not optimal for students learning new concepts so we either need to deliver explicit instruction prior to problem solving or reduce the complexity of the problem solving and run the risk of students concluding that this is not the real-world experience that they had been sold.
Far from being the solution to our downward trend, the narrative around STEM might actually be contributing to it. I dont think it is a coincidence that Scotlands Curriculum for Excellence embodies many trendy notions around real-world problem-solving and yet Scotland is seeing a decline in its STEM results.*
To confound the issue further, some folks have decided to put an A in STEM to create STEAM. The A stands for Art or maybe Arts. Depending on your source, it could refer to the addition of a fairly contained set of notions around visual art and design or it could represent the arts more generally. In the case of the former, you often hear reference to design thinking as some kind of desirable skill to develop, although I doubt it is anything like the generic skill that people imagine. In the latter case, there is very little in an academic curriculum that would not be covered by STEAM. Which takes the focus away from considering the selection curriculum content and much more towards teaching methods.
Because STEAM seems to prioritise certain styles of teaching such as Project-Based Learning. Project-based learning has been a central component of the progressive education agenda since at least as far back as William Heard Kilpatricks 1918 essay on The Project Method. Even so, there is little evidence for its effectiveness, despite the grandiose claims that are often made. A recent Education Endowment Foundation trial of Project-Based Learning found a potentially negative impact on literacy, although this finding was compromised by a high drop-out rate from the study. So it either doesnt work or schools find it really hard to do. Either way, project-based learning is not promising.
STEAMs old-fashioned progressivist agenda is only enhanced by its focus on collaboration, critical thinking and so on; the misnamed 21st Century Skills. Again, skills like critical thinking are not generic and there is little evidence that they can be developed through STEAM approaches. The claims made are ideological rather than based upon evidence.
So I think that STEAM is a cipher. It appeals to an anxiety about STEM education but then subverts it to call for old-fashioned progressive education. I suggest taking the A back out of it, and maybe the E and the T too. That way, we may focus on the effective teaching of science and mathematics instead. This is the best way to arrest any decline.