STEAM + Economics + Equity? Strange bedfellows, but oh, how STEAM-EE

Raise your hand if you need more from STEAM than robots, rockets, coding, and cars.


what do we mean by ‘real world’ learning?

The relentless cry for 21st century learning has elevated STEM/STEAM to a deity in education. As the narrative goes, students can’t be prepared students for the future without a steady (or exclusive) diet of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Robots, rockets, coding, and cars are at the top of list, touted for their ability to prepare students to be “globally competitive” by solving “real world” problems such as these:

  • Programming a machine to sign holiday cards

  • Writing code to make a mechanical cat to play a harmonica

  • Creating a robot that can put a ball into a box

Yes, these are actual examples, and while they may be fun ways to learn technology, they are not real-world problems. When STEAM is focused so heavily engineering, students end up knowing more about tech toys than they do about the food, water, air that keep them alive.

looking towards the 22nd Century

A child born today is likely to see the year 2100. With each passing day, “21st century” learning becomes a little more obsolete.

If we are honest about the future, we know that we are handing our kids (and their kids) unprecedented environmental, economic and social challenges that will follow them beyond the year 2100. STEAM, of course, has a role: Society will need climate scientists, “green” chemists, and environmental engineers. We will need technology in all its forms, from computers to rain barrels.

What would happen if we designed STEAM instruction accordingly? Consider these questions:

  • Climate change is already affecting the global economy. Do your students understand the local consequences?

  • The way we eat has profound impacts on the environment. Can your students identify the true costs and create policies for a local, sustainable food system?

  • Renewable energy is on the rise. Do your students know how it can make their own communities more resilient?

Time to get STEAM-EE

STEAM is vital for preparing students for the uncertain future of climate change, water scarcity, food deserts, economic inequality and other complex challenges. To harness the power of STEAM to solve 22nd century problems, we need to integrate economics and equity as well. Adding these dimensions—whether through content or as a lens—brings the relevance and “deeper learning” educators cry out for. Here’s what it can look like:

Photo credit: Bart Eddy

Photo credit: Bart Eddy

  • In Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood--and across the city--residents were facing water shutoffs. With few options, residents collected rain water from roofs using rain barrels--but still faced the task of purifying it. To address the problem, high school students converted industrial tricycles into solar-powered water purification units and went door-to-door to help residents clean their rainwater.

  • Middle school students in a high-poverty school in Chicago investigated why their community is disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. They uncovered the economic backstory, communicate their research findings to community leaders, and design ecological methods to clean water and soil—all while learning about career pathways linking science, economics, and public policy.

  • Elementary students in a rural community in Ohio explored the natural and human-made resources that support the agricultural economy. Students work with community leaders to create an economic timeline of the community and develop ways to promote the region’s agricultural history as an economic driver.

Solution-oriented learning is especially crucial for low-income students of color, who are most impacted by environmental problems--problems that are only reproduced when curriculum ignores them.

Kids know we’re handing them big challenges, and youth crave the skills and hope to create the future they want: a healthier world and more just world that offers real opportunities to thrive. STEAM exists in a social and economic context, and if we pretend that it doesn’t, we’re not only misleading our students, we’re denying them access to the knowledge they’ll need to change the story.

Adding the economic and equity dimensions to STEAM can help students understand the consequences of scientific applications, support critical thinking, and spur real solutions to the complex, global problems students are inheriting.

Let’s turn up the heat and re-imagine STEAM. Intrigued? Let’s talk.