The Power (and Philosophy) of STEAM Learning – Part 1

Greetings from Chris, your friendly Education and Program Manager at the Children’s Museum!

In a series of six posts, we will explore what STEAM learning looks like at the Museum and how we try to encourage it. This is the overview of the whole idea, and each subsequent post will focus on one of the specific areas of STEAM. I will also offer insights and explanations on how to encourage the thought processes from anywhere, and with anything.

Are you familiar with the acronym STEAM? It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.

The Power and Philosophy of STEAM Learning at the Childrens Museum of Southern Minnesota Mankato


Children have superpowers. They are especially visible when we can observe how they learn, communicate, and grow. Children experience the world as a place of boundless wonder and they express their thoughts with creativity and brilliance. By recognizing what those superpowers are, and what it looks like when children use them, we can all continue to foster and develop the superpowers inherent in the youngest members of our society.

STEAM-based education and experiences clearly show some of those superpowers. Humans intrinsically and instinctively experience the world through STEAM processes. Thus, it makes sense to encourage these characteristics in young people.

Is STEAM-based Education for Children?

It wasn’t all that long ago that the thought of providing a STEAM-based education to very young children was ridiculed as unrealistic and impossible. Some of the adults reading this content did not experience STEAM-based learning as young students. Engineers themselves would sometimes joke that STEAM education for pre-K, K, and early elementary school students would fail because they couldn’t conceive of teaching calculus to young children. If sitting through a calculus lecture were the only way to learn math, I would certainly agree with that critique. For what it’s worth, calculus lectures aren’t particularly relevant to a 6-year-old’s mind.

But, what if the focus of STEAM education changes from one of knowing things to one of doing, experiencing, or thinking about things? What if we framed the purpose of learning from the idea that students are passive receivers to one where students are active discoverers of knowledge? What if education is “not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire,” as a colleague’s desk sign sign proclaims? In that case, it seems that there are no humans on the planet better equipped to experience learning in this way than young children. 

Take It Apart, or Keep It Whole?

The idea of different subjects in schools encouraged most of us to think by separating information and expecting the world to act the same way. While this blog post series will divide STEAM learning into five different components of the acronym, I’ve only done it to categorize information in an easy-to-read way. At the Children’s Museum, STEAM offers five perspectives of the same idea. Real world practices tie Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math together. Education must do the same.

At the Museum, we believe that STEAM is much more a way of thinking than it is a mass of content and have attempted to design our curricula accordingly. Each of the five components of STEAM is just that: a different perspective of the same idea.

STEAM Learning, as We Describe It

  • Science is a way of observing the world and making predictions.
  • Technology is the use of any object designed by humans to make a task more manageable.
  • Engineering is the act of creating technology.
  • Art is the form that is taken by technology.
  • Math is the relationship between things.

None of these individual concepts exist without the other four. As educators, it is our job to foster this kind of thinking, rather than compartmentalizing the perspectives as separate from one another. The pillars of STEAM at the Museum become synonymous with the thought process involved in the discovery of knowledge. Put bluntly, as we use this perspective on STEAM learning, the process of discovery becomes far more critical than the “correct” answer we may or may not discover.

I will be the first to admit that, as a child of the 80s and 90s, separating process from correctness can be difficult. Children, however, have far fewer challenges. They naturally pay much less attention to the “correctness” of their answers. Through imaginative play experience, or exploration, their journey is entirely about the process. We can all learn a lot from the way children see the world.

– Chris


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