Clarifying STEM/STEAM


A Practical Guide for Retailers, Manufacturers, Parents and Teachers

The Toy Association has just released, “Decoding STEM/STEAM,” to help manufacturers, retailers, teachers, and parents better understand the challenges, stigmas, and myths related to STEM/STEAM learning. While most of us know that the popular STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEAM” with the inclusion of “art”), there is a lot of confusion about the true meaning of these concepts and how they can be taught to children through toys and play.

“Many toys and children’s products on the market are labeled as being STEM- or STEAM-focused, but in reality, there is no universally accepted system for understanding what this label means,” says Ken Seiter, executive vice president of marketing communications at The Toy Association. “That’s why we have embarked on this multiyear undertaking to bring more clarity to STEM/STEAM. We believe that a better understanding of this topic will help toy companies create better products for the next generation of children and drive interest in science, math, and related fields.”

The report, assembled and reviewed by a committee of experts in STEAM fields, aims to shed light on the meaning and history of STEM/STEAM and define the role of toys and play in STEM/STEAM education. It is sure to be a helpful resource for stores that sell toys, manipulatives and other educational resources to teachers and parents.

In the coming months, The Toy Association’s STEM/STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee will look at the unifying characteristics of STEAM toys to help guide manufacturers in developing products that foster STEM/STEAM discovery and learning.

With the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that STEM jobs will increase to more than 9 million by 2022, everyone is looking for innovative ways to expose our nation’s children to science- and math-based subjects. “Our overarching goal is to help toy manufacturers, parents, and teachers to encourage children to use toys and play to grow and enhance their learning – and build lifelong skills,” Seiter says.

To that end, the report also explores how role models, stereotypes, and parental attitudes and anxieties about math and other STEM topics can influence a child’s desire and motivation to learn. It also dives into the important role played by the arts in empowering solutions to scientific problems, and the top 10 ways that toys can teach STEAM.

Here is just a sample of what you’ll find in the “Decoding STEM/STEAM” report

Meaning of STEM and STEAM

A simplified definition is this: STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

According to the National Science Teachers Association, “Most educators know what STEM stands for, but how many really know what it means?

A common definition is this: STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.” (Tsupros, 2009)


To better understand STEM/STEAM, look to both its origins and its purpose. STEM itself was born in the information age, christened by the National Science Foundation and fueled by our ever-expanding appetite for technology that is better, faster, and smarter than a minute ago. It grew out of two intertwined needs – a workplace that demands STEM skills and an educational system that can pipeline people into those positions.

An argument could be made that STEM is a national focus, a societal call to action, a series of government policies, an academic emphasis, and, because of these, a marketing hot-button. Words like educational curriculum, workplace readiness, and global economy/competitiveness all relate and interact with the implications of this term.

STEM can also find meaning in two other words – profit and prophet. The profit relates to the desire to prepare our children for the workplace by educating and providing the skills they need to succeed; thereby helping our nation and its citizens to globally compete and prosper.

The prophet part refers to the future and how to prepare the next generation for a rapidly evolving, unpredictable world. As futurist and globalization guru Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, predicts, “Being really good at learning how to learn will be an enormous asset in an era of rapid change and innovation, when new jobs will be phased in and old ones phased out faster than ever.”

STEM skills undoubtedly are needed for our future, but what about the innovation Friedman refers to – where does that fit in?

Innovation critics of STEM claim it’s a short-sighted effort to prioritize school curricula by overly focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which are perceived as crucial for future job opportunities and the development of the economy – but at what cost?

STEM curriculum, as a national focus, has taken the emphasis off academic subjects reflected in the humanities and liberal arts educational model (once the staple of higher education) that would help drive innovation. Some fear that these disciplines are being drowned out by the rallying call for more hard science.

Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria explains in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, “Around the world, the idea of a broad-based ‘liberal’ education is closely tied to the United States and its great universities and colleges. But in America itself, a liberal education is out of favor. In an age defined by technology and globalization, everyone is talking about skills-based learning. Politicians, businesspeople, and even many educators see it as the only way for the nation to stay competitive. They urge students to stop dreaming and start thinking practically about the skills they will need in the workplace. An open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere.”

However, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs reinforced the import ant role of liberal arts during his unveiling of a new edition of the iPad when he said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

The full “Decoding STEM/STEAM” report is available at An infographic on the “Top 10 Ways Toys Can Teach STEAM” and a “Myths and Messages” brochure for parents and educators can be found at, The Toy Association’s consumer website.

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