STEM vs STEAM Education


Presenting photography workshops to students in Auckland Primary Schools, we have seen some fascinating outcomes. We had students who found photography lit a fire of creativity and exploration within them; we had some who had some learning challenges tell us that they had now found something they were as good as other kids at; we had shy kids start arriving full of stories about the photos they took on the weekend and we had kids get competitive about achieving the best image of the day.

Creativity grows and flourishes when students are able to devote time and energy to it.


We had 6-year olds thinking about the best layout for pencils or crayons to create an interesting image. We had 10-year olds photographing a leaf 4 times from different angles and then turning it over and exploring it from a new perspective. We had 7-year olds who manged to grasp forced perspective by putting a toy car in a sandpit or created an image of a dinosaur attacking their school.  

We have been encouraged by the outcomes from the course (just take a quick browse through the gallery pages and you will agree) and the feedback from parents and students.

The best part of these workshops were that students were having fun and learning inherently without stress or pressure.

So we set a challenge to see creativity at work. Create an interesting image from a basic packet of coloured pencils – seriously, how many ways could there be to photograph pencils right? Check out the image above and this is only half the images we could have put up!


Now imagine the power of these students once they turn this creativity to look at scientific or mathematic problems from this many perspectives.

We are still finding new images that kids produce during this challenge each term – the same goes with ribbons – who knew? 

Give it a go – ask a kid to take some photos of a simple object and watch their imagination flow! 

We could see kids were really responding to what we were teaching and then the lightbulb moment – we could see how using photography we were giving kids tools that helped in other areas of the education spectrum. We wanted to support the ideals and work teachers did in the classroom but understood we had the unique opportunity to pass on skills whilst kids had fun.  With this in mind we began researching the role the Arts play in education. This is commonly known as a STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and sometimes known as 21st Century Learning.

One of the most interesting articles we read was by Ainissa Ramirez whose article was on – she stated “Creativity is the secret sauce to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).” Ms Ramirez went on to explain that creativity is the art of the metaphor, they create linkage between two dissimilar ideas. They are the reason when taking the known and the unknown and applying creativity, scientific breakthroughs occur.


Let us give you an illustration of how our modules link STEM to the A (Arts) for STEAM education. One of our modules is all about photographing nature, we explore outside the classroom which brings a number of challenges and stretches the students. The key outcomes of this module are exploration and innovation.

  1. We don’t allow photography of people so when we are outside students needs to respect privacy. This encourages communication and being a team player. This is lesson 1. 
  2.  In bright sunlight shadows can make or break an image so we discuss perspective and the need to explore a problem from multiple angles. This works with understanding multiple strategies to answer a math question or scientific theory. This is lesson 2.. 
  3. We encourage students to review images to check quality (this is similar to proof-reading a piece of writing). Students are taught to check for “photo bombs” which are technical errors (blurry photos) or things that look out of place in the image (again this is teaching context and strategic thinking).  This is lesson 3. 
  4. Once our students have reviewed their work, we ask if anyone wants to share their best image of the day (presentation skills, personal development and critical analysis). This is lesson 4.


John Tarnoff wrote an excellent article in Huffington Post about the need to shift from STEM based learning to STEAM education – he called it “recognising the value of creative skills in the competitiveness debate”.

Mr Tarnoff noted “There is no question that STEM education and STEM skills are a vital part of this country’s edge, but many educators would argue that STEM is missing a key set of creativity-related components that are equally critical to fostering a competitive and innovative workforce, and those skills are summarised under the letter “A” for Arts.”

We need a future where companies can rely on its people to creatively brainstorm for innovation, collaborate creatively and communicate new ideas. This 21st century learning is vital to the ongoing health of an economy and allows people to grow and evolve in their careers. 


Photography is a unique art that allows all students to grow and develop skills. The camera provides an incentive for those students with a more technical focus whilst the subject matter nurtures creativity and innovation. Our students are keen to explore new subject matter and in doing so look at the world around them with more curiosity. One of our students told us she often finds herself looking for subject matter at break times as she and her friends play – this is a fantastic outcome.


Sir Ken Robinson has commented “It is often said that education and training are the keys to the future. They are, but a key can be turned in two directions. Turn it one way and you lock resources away, even from those they belong to. Turn it the other way and you release resources and give people back to themselves. To realize our true creative potential—in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities—we need to think differently about ourselves and to act differently towards each other. We must learn to be creative.”


As we saw with the pencil challenge above, kids have a unique way of looking at the world, both literally and figuratively. This enables them to be creative without regard for convention and therefore boosts confidence and grows the individual child.


As John Tarnoff said “If we can marry the technical with the creative – we are golden: competitive, innovative and ahead of the curve. So let’s not forget about the “A”.”

Facebook is a technology company that is based on the art of communication and creativity, Apple’s creativity is shown in its incredible designs that backup a innovative product, Tesla is making the world a better place through science and creativity. 

We need both sides of the coin – the arts to provide creativity and the objectives of STEM - together the future is STEAM.

“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”
― Sir Ken Robinson, TED Speaker on Education, Author of “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” and "Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative".

Images for this article captured by our creative students: 

Shaelyn, Logan, Brooklyn, Natalia, Sophie, Wooyoung, Caroline, Mia, Miles, Oliver, Lucy S, Sam, Danielle and Harper.