From STEM to STEAM: The evolution of the engineering student

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and it demands evolution. New engineers must be equipped to step into this rapidly changing arena, and their educators are getting creative to ensure they’re up to the task.

Where previous revolutions were characterized by a single technology such as steam or digital, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by an array of exponentially expanding technologies. With web connectivity and the Internet of Things, smart everything, robotics, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, most jobs—if not all—will change. As technology explodes around us at breakneck speed, today’s students are entering the workforce at a time when almost every industry is being disrupted. Engineers will need to be well versed in multiple areas of expertise, and their curricula must be motivating and engaging, with real-world applications.

A shift is quietly taking place in engineering education with potentially far-reaching effects: the subtle adding of the letter “a” to what is traditionally known as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). STEAM adds “arts” and brings the creative spirit to the mix—something that’s so important to a field as inherently creative as engineering. STEAM aims to help students achieve deeper learning, keep them engaged and give them better tools to learn the skills of tomorrow. Just as engineers work to solve problems using creative thinking, students must also engage their problem-solving skills using creative processes.

There’s a misconception that the integration of arts means dropping an isolated art course into the core STEM curriculum, but where the concept of STEAM shines is the seamless integration of arts embedded into course content. STEAM curricula better reflect how students learn naturally and allow them to express their creativity and develop creative thinking—essential skills to have when they enter the workforce. STEAM finds where creativity fits naturally and gets students to connect with traditional STEM material through experiential learning and active engagement. Anyone familiar with the evidence-based Montessori Method, developed decades ago by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, will recognize the similarity to the STEAM philosophy, whose proponents recognize motivation and engagement as critical for keeping students involved with traditional STEM subjects over the long-term.

Matt Minnick, PhD, P.Eng., assistant professor at McMaster University’s faculty of engineering and vice chair of PEO’s Hamilton-Burlington Chapter, weighs in on creativity in STEM education: “Creativity is very important for science and very important for engineering. There’s so much creativity in everything engineering related people do. If you’re thinking about how you should design something, engineering itself involves practising a lot of creativity. If the goal of STEAM is to increase creativity, that’s a useful goal.”

Minnick, who delivered the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers exam skills program and is the co-founder of, a company that specializes in helping applicants prepare for the professional practice exam for engineering licensing in Ontario, points out that students today have more creative input. “There’s a definite shift towards creativity and experiential learning,” he says. “There are more courses that involve design projects, and design projects inherently involve a lot of creativity. There’s less of what you’d call ‘chalk and talk courses’—the classic thing where the teacher goes and writes stuff on the board and talks about it, writes a bit, then talks about it some more—as opposed to what we have now, which is more active learning.” This type of hands-on learning is critical, says Minnick. “What we’re finding, and this applies to engineering too, is students put into co-op, into work experience and problem-based learning scenarios, not only get practical experience but are much more available to the theory when it comes up,” he says (see “Bridging the gap”).

McMaster University was recently awarded the prestigious Global Teaching Excellence Award based on the strength of their experiential learning opportunities. Hands-on learning breeds engagement, which feeds motivation, something Minnick believes is critical for academic success. “Motivation is such a key factor for everybody,” he says. “As an instructor, you must recognize that motivation of students is an important thing to consider, and students must find the material interesting, because then they’re going to get further with the stuff.” This is especially important in a world where students carry the Internet in their pocket and holding their attention is a challenge. While Minnick thinks the curriculum is keeping up, and he’s optimistic that educators are winning the battle, “it’s a bit of an arms race for students’ attention,” he points out.

Chris Meyer, president of the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers and a hybrid teacher-coach with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), is deeply involved with physics education research. Meyer developed a Grade 11 and 12 physics program that’s regarded as a leading example in Ontario of active-learning, inquiry-based education. He believes a key factor for supporting good learning is having students talk to one another about their scientific ideas under expert supervision and showing them why an expert would care about what it is they’re learning. “Traditional science instruction encourages students to memorize disconnected facts or apply knowledge in cookie-cutter problems and laboratory activities,” Meyer says. “These students never have an opportunity to learn or use scientific knowledge in ways like expert practitioners. They never get to answer the questions ‘Why? Why are we learning this?’ Students never experience science as a living, breathing process.” 

Meyer says people who observe the reformed chemistry and physics classes in his school are surprised by what they see: “They observe a hive of activity as students work in collaborative teams on tasks carefully designed by their teachers to help them discover new scientific ideas. In this learning environment, students are asking and answering questions that model the thinking process of experts.” The advantage of this approach is that students are much more encouraged to find “aha” moments, compared with traditional instruction. “Students are highly engaged in their work and take ownership of the ideas they discover,” Meyer says. “They’re constantly talking and writing about scientific ideas in their own words—and, most importantly, they’re having fun, all while achieving a higher level of skill development than students in traditional classes.”

This helps combat what Meyer calls the Einstein effect—that you must be an Einstein to succeed at physics—a widely reinforced belief in popular culture. “This is wrong,” Meyer explains. “There are many average people who succeed in STEM fields due to their highly trained skills and willingness to tackle challenging problems. The modern science of learning strongly supports the idea that the average person can achieve this elevated level of skill development if they’re taught well and are not discouraged during the long training process.” In his Grade 11 introductory physics classes, Meyer confronts the common perceptions of who can be a scientist, engineer or physicist and reflects on the importance of helping students experience success early on. “Diversity initiatives will fail if students from underrepresented groups arrive in class and quickly decide, ‘I can’t do this.’ Research shows that inquiry-based learning prevents the gap between high- and low-performing students from widening, as it does with traditional instruction. These changes in teaching are a critical component of opening up career prospects in the STEM disciplines to new students.”

If the aim is to cultivate multi-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinkers capable of navigating our rapidly changing world, educators need to get with the times, Meyer warns: “Our education system is barely coping with the social upheaval resulting from the shift away from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. The evidence is right in front of us: Too many students leave school with a genuine dislike for science, and learning in general. When the revolution of cognitive machines hits and many modest thinking tasks are automated, the mismatch between our educational system and the work world will be even greater. In that future world, we will always need to develop our core understanding of math, science and language to maintain our intuitive ability to understand whether something seems right, but we’ll also need to nurture deep wells of curiosity, creativity and empathy in our students—attributes that are traditionally considered innate but are actually teachable.”

Another creativity champion, Jennifer Arp, TDSB trustee for Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence, and TDSB vice chair, sees STEAM as a natural reflection of the world students live in. She believes hands-on, collaborative education sets students up for success in fields that are all about collaborative work. At John Polanyi Collegiate Institute, a high school in Arp’s ward, STEAM is being embedded into all aspects of school life, keeping students engaged with a curriculum that’s more flexible and less rigid. “The STEAM curriculum is encouraging creativity in kids, and it’s encouraging creativity that reflects the world they’re living in today,” Arp says. “I see STEAM, with the art component embedded into STEM, allowing kids to explore science and math and engineering in whatever way they would like to. STEAM education is important because it’s about meeting kids where they’re at in their learning. The job market is changing so rapidly that we don’t necessarily know what the jobs are going to look like and what they’re going to be. Often, work in STEM areas isn’t individual work: it’s group work. It’s preparing kids to enter post-secondary [education] and be successful.”

The highly successful science, math and robotics program at John Polanyi boasts a fluid, dynamic curriculum, and it’s the only one of its kind. “There are other science-technology programs, but this is the only one where it’s not about the highest grades to get in,” Arp says. “It uses an equitable lens for admissions and identifies the kids who have a real genuine interest. If you walked into that school, into the learning environment, you’d think you were in a university.” While there are options to specialize, there’s also an option to not specialize and take the courses in the program that are of interest. “It’s not like every child in that program is taking the same set of courses for the entire four years,” Arp explains. “If a student has an interest in medical technology, there are courses available for them to explore that. If they have an interest in making documentaries, they can pursue that.” Arp is concerned with the current political climate and recent push to get “back to basics” in education, and she wonders: “What does that mean?” She sees the decline in math scores not as a failure of the student but a failure of educators to keep up, adding, “Are we providing them with the rich, interdisciplinary learning opportunities that reflect the world they live in?”

As chair of the board of directors of FIRST Robotics Canada, Dorothy Byers knows all about the role creativity plays in learning. The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to pursue studies and careers in STEM through robotics competitions for school-age students from elementary through high school. Byers, who holds a master’s degree in education and was a teacher before moving into administration, explains how important it is for kids to work with professionals and real-life role models through FIRST, and says it’s a prime example of the engineering design element in practice and a demonstration of how creativity and real-world collaboration breed success. “Kids who have been involved in FIRST are 90 per cent more likely to pursue STEM,” Byers says. “Kids need to aspire to learn and look at pathways they haven’t necessarily thought of for themselves.” At FIRST, she explains, creativity and hands-on learning, along with a spirit of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), reflects the world we live in, breeds confidence and lays a solid foundation for kids to pursue STEM subjects. “It’s important to promote EDI so kids, no matter who they are, see there’s a future for themselves. When we have all voices at the table in a profession, you’re going to come up with the best solutions and the best ideas.”

Another crucial lesson for students is learning the value of failure, something that can only happen through doing. “There’s lots of opportunity for failure and learning from failure, and that’s important in any line of work but particularly in engineering,” Byers says. “That’s a profound lesson. When the mentors work with teams, it’s not just about winning; it’s about learning how to use the engineering process and design to come up with a solution, in this case a robot that has a strategy to play a game. Think of any line of engineering. It’s all about the strategy, the problem, the process and the solution. It’s about how we can be innovative and creative to solve this, to look at it from all sides and improve upon it.”

Because students will be entering a workforce in which most of the jobs don’t yet exist, it’s important to look to the future. “For me, education is not about today; it’s about thinking strategically about what we need to equip students with so that, with the education they’re receiving today, no matter what level they’re at, we’re looking at what we as a province and as a country are going to need to have when our kids are older so we can keep innovation alive and be competitive on the world stage,” Byers asserts. “When we look at STEM fields, students must be equipped with all the needed skills, including soft skills: problem-solving, teamwork, creative and critical thinking, looking at the value of failure as a learning opportunity, learning how to be collaborative, how to be good communicators, all of that is critical to STEM learning. It’s not just the technical stuff.”

While STEAM’s spirit of creativity is being fostered by educators, some institutions are taking it a step further by weaving art into the STEM curriculum and taking advantage of the multitude of talent students bring to engineering. Willy Wong, PhD, LEL, is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s department of electrical and computer engineering and director of the new engineering performance minor program. The combination of engineering and music is not a new concept, and there are countless examples of individuals who excel at both, including some of the experts in this article: alongside their STEM pursuits, Matt Minnick, Chris Meyer and Willy Wong are all accomplished musicians. Wong explains: “There are challenges to combining an arts-based education with a program like engineering: How do you capture the best of both worlds? Students can find inspiration through studying a variety of courses in different disciplines.”

Wong notes engineering education has changed for the better in recent years: “There is much more embracing of non-classical, non-traditional aspects of engineering. In the past, engineering stayed close to its roots. Electrical engineers worked exclusively in electrical engineering, mechanicals with mechanical engineering, etc. But now we’re more actively promoting cross-disciplinary areas within the undergraduate curriculum. It’s important for students to remember there is a wide world out there when they graduate. They can’t be myopic when pursuing their studies and must be prepared to learn long after leaving school. We don’t know where the next revolution will be. We need to keep an open mind.”