Buzzwords, STEM, STEAM, Makerspaces, Museums, Fab Labs, Science, Technology, Engineering, Community Centers, Math, Art, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, Computer Controlled Fabrication Machines, Creativity, Hackerspaces, Maker Hubs, Libraries, Traditional Hand Tools, Electronics Components, AV Equipment, Hands On Learning

Breaking Down Buzzwords: STEM, STEAM, Makerspaces, and Fab Labs

STEM, STEAM, makerspaces, fab labs…these are buzz words in the education world but what do they mean and why are they important? Let’s break it down.

What is STEM and STEAM? STEM is an acronym for four subject areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. In 2013, STEM evolved into STEAM, which includes A for Art. Art was added because of the natural connection between analytical subjects like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and the creative subjects of the Arts. Think about it. Professions such as graphic design, animation, product design, architecture, and even landscaping require both artistic and technical skill sets. For example, an architect cannot bring a creative vision to life without the technical knowledge of 3D modeling and computer-aided design. The addition of Art is also significant because it makes STEM subjects more accessible and relatable for students who may not initially be drawn to those areas. Despite the addition of Art almost a decade ago, STEM and STEAM remain generally interchangeable.

Why are STEM and STEAM important? Although the emphasis on STEM/STEAM education is not a new trend, it continues to be important for several reasons. First, STEM/STEAM disciplines help students learn widely applicable skills for success including critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Second, STEM/STEAM disciplines give students knowledge to better understand and navigate the world around them, from the science behind the food they eat to the technology in their smart phones. Finally and perhaps most importantly, according to the US Department of Commerce, STEM occupations grew three times faster than non-STEM occupations over the past decade. Therefore, the future of the US economy and innovation relies on a pipeline of STEM/STEAM-savvy students.

What are makerspaces and fab labs? Makerspaces, fab labs, hackerspaces, maker hubs…the list goes on. There are slight differences between these terms but generally they describe spaces designed for “making” and can be found in schools of all levels, libraries, museums, and community centers. There are even makerspaces in people’s garages, mobile makerspaces in trailers, and mini makerspace carts in classrooms. These spaces can include everything from computer-controlled fabrication machines, traditional hand tools, electronics components, and AV equipment to sewing machines, virtual reality equipment, recyclables, and craft supplies. In the education world, these spaces are often used to provide creative hands-on learning opportunities, encourage teamwork and collaboration, teach technical skills, and promote cross-disciplinary learning experiences.

Why are makerspaces and fab labs important? Makerspaces are important because they contrast the traditional classroom experience. The ideal makerspace experience reflects more of a professional setting than the traditional classroom. For example, students are often presented with an open-ended design challenge or problem to solve within a set of criteria and constraints. Successfully completing the challenge or solving the problem requires teamwork, iteration, giving and receiving feedback, flexibility, and can even emphasize practical skills such as budgeting and time management. Furthermore, students must leverage different skills from different team members. A well-executed makerspace helps students learn these real-world skills and sets them up for success, regardless of the career path they choose.

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