Decoding STEM/STEAM: The Toy Association Unmasks Meaning Behind the Concepts

July 3, 2018 | What do the concepts of STEM and STEAM mean and how did the growing educational movement come about?

In a new series, Toy News Tuesday will share key details from The Toy Association’s in-depth report, “Decoding STEM/STEAM,” which aims to bring more clarity to STEM/STEAM for toy professionals, parents, teachers, and the general public. Assembled and reviewed by The Toy Association’s STEM/STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee [see sidebar], the report explores the meaning of STEM/STEAM and the role of toys and play in learning these subjects.

This series will break down each section of the report, beginning with an overview of STEM/STEAM definitions and its background and history:


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

In its most simplified definition, STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education is rooted in an interdisciplinary approach to learning that combines academic concepts with real-world lessons to help students make connections between STEM topics and school, community, work, and the global enterprise. Ultimately, the curriculum builds STEM literacy and enables learners to compete in the new economy.  

The concept itself was born in the information age, christened by the National Science Foundation and fueled by an 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.

STEM can also find meaning in the words “profit” and “prophet.” Profit relates to the desire to prepare our children for the workplace by providing the skills they need to succeed – thereby helping a nation and its citizens to globally compete and prosper. Prophet refers to the future and how to prepare the next generation for a rapidly evolving, unpredictable world.

Adding the “A”

Driven by a need for children to tap into their creative and imaginative skills to facilitate innovative thinking, the “A” has made its way into the STEM acronym and cultural conversation. STEAM moved into focus as scientists, educators, and employers began to realize that something was missing in the STEM model of workforce preparedness – the whole second-part of the brain. This is the part of the mind where imagination and intuition reside and where creativity is often the path to finding another important “A” – answers. The “A” in STEAM represents the artistic and creative right side of the brain, known as the subconscious or unconscious mind.

As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs once 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.”

And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college.

These ideas and more are explored in the report, which delves into the rich intersection where confidence and competence in STEAM topics are expanded through engaging with toys and games.

The next Toy News Tuesday article in this series will focus on common misconceptions surrounding STEM/STEAM. The full “Decoding STEM/STEAM” report is available at