“STEAM” Education – What’s the Place for History?

Last month I received the Spring number of my college’s magazine. The cover features a white-coated cartoon figure accompanied by a color-burst “Superheroes of STEM”:

Image: magazine.lafayette.edu

As you might imagine, the article celebrates some college professors, teachers of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as heroes of the modern educational enterprise: they are helping train the people our country needs looking forward in a world of economic competition driven by technological inventiveness.

But then the author veers  to a newer educational acronym, STEAM, which, she points out, adds “Art” (or, in my preferred formulation, “the Arts”) to the educational mix. Here, the argument goes, is where we open up the technological world to who might be referred to as “soft science” people. Art / the Arts adds a creative element to the scientific enterprise.

There’s a great debate going on in higher education now, between the STEMers and the STEAMers. Anne Jolly, an award winning educator and STEAM advocate puts the debate this way(1): The former argue that adding the “A” dilutes a necessary emphasis on the hard sciences so necessary they believe for our successful competition in the world marketplace of ideas and products. “How can you focus on other subjects (such as art) without losing the mission of STEM or watering down its primary purpose?” For the STEAMer, view, Jolly quotes Ruth Catchen, a STEAM advocate from Colorado, to wit, “the arts are a great learning tool and can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students. Engaging students’ strengths using art activities increases motivation and the probability of STEM success. She views art as a way of offering more diverse learning opportunities and greater access to STEM for all types of learners”. Jolly sums up, “The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.”

That’s all well and good, but where do the liberal arts – most especially history – come into this formulation? It’s a question to which I could find few answers in a Google inquiry. But one stood out, an article in The Conversation (2) by Muhammad H Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. He writes that today’s students have sparse knowledge “about the giants upon whose shoulders we all stand”, but that educational research shows that these same students are more likely to develop interest in pursuing scientific education as a result of learning the narratives of science and technology pioneers.  He adds that studies suggest “context and history play a strong role in connecting science and engineering theory with practice.”

Professor Zaman goes on to show that these historical narratives teach students that the scientific quest is often one of disappointment and failure, that persistence in the face of adversity often yields success. “Indeed, the discussion of struggles, obstacles, failures and persistence can lead to significant academic improvement of students, particularly for those who may be facing personal or financial difficulties or feeling discouraged by previous instructors and mentors”, he adds.

When I became a partner in The Permanente Medical Group (the physician group that provides medical services to the members of the Kaiser-Permanente Healthcare Program in northern California), we were taught the history of the organization. This history emphasized its early struggles when organized medicine opposed the program because of its philosophy of prepaid health care and salaried physicians. This history, with its stories of the struggles overcome by the founding physicians motivated me to become a better physician myself.

So finally, we see a role and a value for history in a STEM / STEAM environment, and in life-in-general! Taken many millions of times over, the endeavors of people motivated by knowledge of the past can and will lead to a better world.

(1) https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/11/18/ctq-jolly-stem-vs-steam.html (accessed 31 May 2018).

(2) http://theconversation.com/why-science-and-engineering-need-to-remind-students-of-forgotten-lessons-from-history-61356 (accessed 10 June 2018).

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

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  • Mac Perry  On 10 Jun 2018 at 13:27

    I’m OK with STEAM as long as we restrict the A.

    A=history and literature, but NOT sociology, political science, gender studies and the rest of the nonsensical curriculum designed to allow inferior intellects to obtain a college degree. That would represent real dilution.

    I was a history major who, in spite of that disadvantage, was able to con my way into medical school. I find that my background gives me some historical perspective and ability to express myself in writing (think charts).

    • thomaslsnyder  On 10 Jun 2018 at 15:34


      I agree. Think “the broadly educated physician” in the Oslerian tradition. The valedictorian of my medical school class was an ordained Presbyterian minister who intended to become a medical missionary. It sorta became true: he ended up being CBS’s medical correspondent for many years – Dr Timothy Johnson.

  • Paul Sayles.  On 11 Jun 2018 at 02:28

    One of the better docs I served with had an undergrad degree in anthropology. I first started to become interested in history when I started to read a book about Abraham Lincoln when I was about eight or so. I was inspired by his thirst for reading and bettering himself and adopted his attitude as my lode star. When I had a choice for completing my baccalaureate studies, I opted for history.

    • thomaslsnyder  On 11 Jun 2018 at 08:02

      My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry – the 1960s precursor, I suppose, of a pre-Med degree. My best remembered courses, still, were a seminar course in military history (it informs my main extra-medical interest to today) and Econ 101 (micro) and 102 (macro) – they’ve informed, to a large extent, my understanding of the world and my place in it.

  • Kay Flavell  On 11 Jun 2018 at 10:00

    Enjoyed your article, Tom, and will share it with the ILC team on Georgia Street. Good argument for motivating STEAM students via history of science and historical biography. Great biographies of Lincoln and Martin Luther (I was reared in Presbyterianism) read at the age 11 or 12 certainly helped me develop resilience and believe in the power of clear vision to succeed eventually.

    • thomaslsnyder  On 12 Jun 2018 at 11:23

      Thanks, Kay. Everyone in the historical community should be worried by the devaluation of historical study in our schools, both at the high school and university levels. Finding ways to demonstrate the relevance of the past is one of my personal missions.

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