4 STEAM: Integration of disciplines

In this chapter you learn about:

  • Why STEAM is an important didactical approach in education?
  • How STEAM is characterized by integration of disciplines and solving problems?
  • How the 5 disciplines are integrated with each other in STEAM education?
  • What the 5 disciplines stand for within STEAM education?
  • How inquiry, design and optimization play a central role in STEAM education?

Within good STEAM education, everything starts from problems which are situated within relevant and authentic contexts. In order to solve these problems the content and skills which are related to the different STEAM disciplines are integrated and used in order to find answers and solutions for these problems. This happens in an iterative process in which Inquiry, Design and Optimization are central elements (Van De Keere & Neyrynck, 2020).

STEAM education triggers problem solving skills and focuses on learning by doing and analogical reasoning to bridge the gap between problem and solution and hereby uncertainty is a starting condition that demands certain cognitive skills and resources. (Purzer et al, 2015).

What do we exactly mean by “Inquiry”, “Design”, “Optimization”?

In order to explain these we have to explain the meaning of the different disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Inquiry is related to ‘Science’ 

What drives a scientist? In the first place, the desire to know and to explain natural phenomena, concepts. It is the fascination for understanding nature as the main driving force. Although scientific knowledge can be very useful, the driving force for a scientist is the desire for ‘wanting to know’ …. (Frans, R., et al., 2013)


Inquiry skills and the process of inquiry

Examples of natural phenomena (concepts) are: shadows, forces, electricity, aggregation,… The list of scientific concepts is endless.  In order to know more about these concepts, the scientist applies some specific inquiry skills such as asking the right questions, to predict, to plan, gathering, analyse and explain data in a systematic way, formulate conclusions… This all sounds very serious but it can be perfectly done even with young children.

Scientific inquiry prepares students to think and act like real scientists, ask questions, hypothesise and conduct investigations using standard science practises brought together within a so-called process of inquiry or the inquiry circle (Kelley & Knowles, 2016). So all these inquiry skills are applied in a systematic way.

Figure 1. The process of inquiry (Van Graft & Kemmers, 2007; Kolodner et al., 2003)

So inquiry is:

  • Searching for an answer for a scientific question related to scientific concepts
  • through the process of inquiry.

The knowledge about scientific concepts on the one hand and the scientific processes (inquiry skills) on the other are connected with each other.

STEM education can link scientific inquiry, by formulating questions answered through investigation to inform the students before they engage in a design process to solve problems. (Kennedy et al. 2014).

Shadow Art example

When the students enter the classroom, they see that there are a lot of pictures of artwork on the walls. “The classroom is a museum,” the teacher says, almost in a whisper. “Choose one work of art that appeals to you the most.” The students are trying to find out how those works of art were made and they are challenged a little later to construct a shadow work of art themselves.

Figure 2. Shadow art examples. Photos from private collection.

In a first task in the activity, they discover how to make a shadow and how to make it larger or smaller, using a light source (lamp), a number of objects (cans, bricks) and a screen. They learn, among other things, to “collect data in a systematic manner” by controlling variables, making connections (if … then … formulating relationships) and drawing conclusions by analyzing data.

  • If I move the thin can closer to the screen, the shadow becomes smaller, … If I move the thin can closer to the light source the shadow becomes bigger.
  • I need to change one variable and keep the other objects in the same position to get knowledge about how shadows are formed.
  • How to collect the data? …

Figure 3. Planning and designing shadow art


So ‘inquiry’ is not just ‘conducting investigations’ in which children have to follow a ‘step by step’ plan in order to ‘visualize’ or ‘explain’ a scientific concept. Inquiry is about solving ‘scientific questions’ in a ‘scientific way’. In order to guide us through this challenge we use the elements of the inquiry circle and by doing this we are applying and learning inquiry skills (Minner et al., 2010).

Design is related to technology and Engineering

In education there is some confusion about the term “technology”, and a study of technology definitions doesn’t bring much clarity (Barack, 2012). Basically, there are two common views of technology; an engineering view and a humanities perspective (Herschbach, 2009). The engineering view means that technology is equated with the making and using of material objects. The humanities view focuses on the human purpose of technology as a response to a specific human endeavour. The human purpose provides additional meaning for technology. Thus based upon these views, technology should not be seen as the purely manual component, such as handling of tools and/or materials.

A central element of technology is designing ‘systems’ or ‘artefacts’ in order to fulfil human needs. Technology can be seen as a process with activities that include designing, making and using technology (Mitcham, 1994).

Design and the design process

In the former chapter we explained that the inquiry process is  a systematic process. This is also the case for the design process in which a systematic orientated approach is needed. But there is a different goal and another finality. The goal of inquiry is finding answers to scientific questions and the answer is an explanation based on scientific concepts. The goal of the design process is finding answers in order to fulfil human and/or material needs. For that purpose something will be designed and fabricated. Different results / constructs are possible as outcome of the ‘design’ process, while the result of the ‘inquiry process’ has only one theoretical explanation (Purzer et al., 2015).

Figure 4. The design process (Van Graft & Kemmers, 2007; Kolodner et al., 2003)

Shadow Art example (figure 5)

In the ‘Shadow Art’ activity children also have to ‘design’ a ‘system’ in order to fulfill a certain need. They have to make their own “Shadow Skyline”, based on defined criteria. Criteria can be :

  • We need to see 5 buildings
  • One building is twice as big as another building
  • We need to see a window in a building, and also a chimney…


Figure 5. Shadow art solution example. Photo from private collection.


Actually both Engineering and Technology are so closely related and are often taught together (Barack, 2012). In literature it is called ‘engineering design’ (Kelley & Knowles, 2016). According to Brown et al. (1989) Engineering and technology provide a context in which students can test their own developing scientific knowledge and apply it to practical problems. Doing so, their understanding and interest in science is triggered, and they recognize the interplay among science, engineering and technology.

In fact in Engineering, both design and inquiry interact with each other (Barack, 2012). And as Engineering is part of STEAM, this also needs to happen in a STEAM activity. In STEAM, engineering design and scientific inquiry are interwoven through a process of design behaviours and scientific reasoning (Purzer et al., 2015).

Figure 6. The symbiosis of design and inquiry (Kolodner et al. 2003; Vossen 2019)

Within engineering the focus is on solving  problems. These can be totally new problems that no one could solve before. In the past we already had such problems (using solar energy, flying, using computers to communicate with each other, artificial intelligence to help us solve complex problems,…). But mostly a problem is rather a challenge in order to design and optimise certain products, artefacts or services… All systems, tools, materials are constantly optimised. So in an educational context Engineering can be linked to optimising certain products, artefacts or services in order to solve a problem and fulfil a certain need. Problems can have different solutions and engineers are comparing these solutions and trying to find out the best one, based upon certain criteria. When designing a new mobile phone from a well-known telephone brand, for example, they do not immediately make a completely new device at the flick of a wrist. Different groups of researchers are working on the exterior (ergonomic, sturdy, …), another group is working on the screen and another with the processor. So there is not immediately a fully finished design with all its functionalities, but the designers use prototypes, scale models or computer simulations for this.

In the ‘Shadow Art’ activity we also used criteria in a way that children had to take into account certain elements while constructing their piece of Art. As a teacher, setting criteria helps you to coach the activity. Based upon the criteria you can do some intermediate evaluations and stimulate children to optimise their construction based upon the criteria.

Another example … Perseverance Rover landed on Mars on 18/02/2021

The activity starts with offering a socially relevant context: why is it useful to explore Mars? During an activity about launching the Perseverance Rover to Mars, tests must be carried out so that the space capsule with equipment could also land safely on Mars.

The students work from that context as real researchers. As a “prototype” for the extremely fragile equipment, they use an extremely fragile object, for example an egg.

The central point here is to design ‘a space capsule’ that protects the egg. Children can use different materials and tools for this. In order to achieve a successful design, an (intuitive) understanding of scientific concepts such as “extending the braking distance” and “spreading forces” is necessary, and some investigations will be conducted in order to design a successful space capsule.


Mathematics is still too often treated stepmotherly in STEM activities. A STEM approach can make maths really meaningful to students. For example, abstract and often difficult mathematical contents suddenly become much clearer because they are used to achieve a certain goal in a STEM activity (Williams, 2007). This mainly concerns applied mathematics, such as calculations (counting, sorting, ranking, scale calculation, area measurement, …) and being able to express and analyse relationships mathematically (measuring, making a model, drawing a graph, filling in a table, …)

In the previously mentioned example of the shadow artwork, students needed to use mathematical concepts and find out relationships between variables (closer, further, if … then … relationships, …). As soon as the shadow artwork is finished and fully meets the criteria, one can propose to the students to also set up the artwork during an open school day in another location. But how do we rebuild it so that we can exhibit the same Piece of Art identical to the original? The students will have to measure in order to draw a map. This can also be done at scale. In this way, numerous opportunities are created to apply mathematics and make it more meaningful.

Figure 7. Using mathematics in Shadow Art project

So in this activity the children have to create their own skyline based upon certain criteria, but they have to see this ‘problem’ of creating a skyline more like an ‘artist’, which means that they will not only see the technological elements of the ‘problem’, but also will use a more person-oriented and design based approach (cfr. human centred design). In this way ‘design thinking’ is a way to tie together STEAM (Boy, 2013).  In STEAM activities students will also have to work together during the activity. In this way this activity contributes to the development of students’ artistic and creative mindsets and also to  their cooperation skills.

Besides experiential learning opportunities, linked to science, technology, engineering and maths, our economy also requires skills such as application, creation and ingenuity which can be linked to ‘Arts’. So STEAM is a way to take the benefits of STEM and complete the package by integrating these principles in and through the arts. STEAM allows students to connect their learning in these critical areas together with arts practices and design principles…(artsintegration.com)

In such STEAM activities it is important to recognize, know, use and demonstrate a variety of arts elements and principles such as the interaction between ‘considering’ and ‘creating’ (ZILL, 2020). It is about consciously looking for (art) impressions to strengthen one’s own creation and reflecting on it with peers. Consciously experiencing the interaction of considering and creating during the process and communicating about this is central in arts education and can also be made explicit in STEAM activities.

More materials on arts inclusion in STEAM:

  • Quick resource guide: The institute for Arts integration and STEAM
  • Reflections ~ How STEM becomes STEAM
    Ruth Catchen – Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
  • From STEM to STEAM: toward a human-centred education, creativity & learning thinking – Conference Paper · September 2013 – DOI: 10.1145/2501907.2501934 Guy André Boy



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Boy, G. A. (2013)DOI: 10.1145/2501907.2501934. From STEM to STEAM: Toward a human-centred education, creativity and learning thinking – Conference, paper ·.

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Mitcham, C. (1994). Thinking through technology: The path between engineering and philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Purzer, S., Goldstein, M., Adams, R., Xie, C., & Nourian, S. (2015). An exploratory study of informed engineering desing behaviors associated with scientific explanations. International Journal of STEM Education, 2(9), 112.

Williams, D. L. (2007). The what, why and how of contextual teaching in a mathematics classroom. Mathematics Teacher, 100(8), 572575. https://doi.org/10.5951/MT.100.8.0572

Van De Keere, K., & Neyrynck, G. (2020). Sterk in STEM. Inspiratiegids voor het lager onderwijs. Acco. Leuven.

Van Graft, M., & Kemmers, P. (2007)Onderzoekend en Ontwerpend Leren bij Natuur en Techniek. Basisdocument over de didactiek voor onderzoekend en ontwerpend leren in het primair onderwijs. SLO.