• By Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed., Stephanie Garcia, Ph.D., & Asaiah Puente, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2024 •

Perhaps influenced by the false belief that we are either left-brained or right-brained, education has a tendency to treat STEM and the arts as distinct, separate content and skills (Shmerling, 2022). Students from K-12 through higher education typically encounter subject areas separately rather than in ways that are interdisciplinary and interconnected, especially once students enter middle and high school.

The transition between middle and high school is also a point in time where there is an indirect relation between an increased identity formation and a significant loss of interest or confidence in STEM subjects (Heaverlo, et al., 2013; Wang, et al., 2022).

The single-subject approach to teaching does not relate to or support real skills needed by individuals in STEM degrees and professions. It also perpetuates a disconnect for girls and students of color who, despite a 63% interest in STEM (Rubin, 2023), continue to feel like they do not see themselves in the STEM fields of study.

Studies suggest “given that girls interested in STEM have a desire to be in careers that help people (94%) and make a difference in the world (92%), there is opportunity in making the connection between those motivations and related STEM fields” (Goodman, 2018).

A key strategy then is to make STEM education more inclusive and culturally relevant by adding the arts (‘A’) to STEM, thus expanding it in “STEAM.”

The “A” in STEAM can introduce a creative approach to learning STEM subjects. It gives students the opportunity to connect with STEM subjects on an interpersonal level, which is essential to establishing a sense of belonging in young women and students of color (Johnson, 2016).

The arts have an essential impact on belonging and have a positive impact on retention of STEM knowledge. According to the recent State of the Arts Report, students who are engaged in the arts are 112% more likely to see high scores on standardized exams (Texas Cultural Trust, 2023). This shows us that students are using the skills they develop through arts engagement to learn and retain information in core subjects.

Integration of the arts into core subjects and elective courses can develop a student’s critical thinking skills, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, communication skills and civic-mindedness. These are all essential skills for standardized testing to display student comprehension and academic performance.

When we integrate the arts into STEM education, we also increase creativity, innovation and humanistic perspectives in a traditionally analytical and technical field. Specifically, doing so increases opportunities for creativity and innovation; emphasizes necessary communication skills (especially visual and graphic arts); and highlights interdisciplinary connections that tie in cultural and historical connections that broaden students’ perspectives of societal issues.

STEM and Ethnic Studies

Recognizing the severe underrepresentation of hidden figures in history who have greatly contributed to society through innovations that touch all subject areas, especially in STEM, students, families and teachers are urging that cultures and histories be included more in academic studies.

Whether it is a separate course for teens or, importantly, it is integrated in classroom lessons for all grades, ethnic studies is a powerful avenue for making cultural connections (see Rodríguez & García, 2014).

No human profession, no matter how technical, can avoid a human interaction or exclude itself from having an impact on humanity. Whether they are in technology, science, math or any other profession, students’ technical skills from STEM will be enriched and supported when they understand social and cultural conflicts and issues.

There is no separation. Ethnic studies give a deep and rich understanding, especially of the parts of society that have been left out of curricula and instruction. We have ethnic studies, such as African American or Mexican American studies, because the regular social studies and district curriculum from elementary to secondary has typically excluded the histories of, for example, people of color.

Complementary STEM and Ethnic Studies

Students have shared with us that their counselors and academic advisors often convey to students that they can only pursue one category of subjects: ethnic studies or STEM. Either you choose STEM or you choose the arts and culture. Reportedly, there is not enough time or space to learn both. (Hernández, et al., 2024)

Also, some would say if students want a better job, they should not spend too much time on the arts, culture or ethnic studies.

The truth is that each is valuable and can be shared and enjoyed by students. For example, the arts, especially the study of culture, bring certain kinds of emotional skills that improve the student’s ability to analyze and reflect, and it nurtures emotional intelligence.

STEAM education and ethnic studies can complement each other in several ways, bringing together diverse perspectives, and encouraging critical and creative thinking. Below are some ways they can be integrated.

Interdisciplinary Projects: Create projects that blend elements of STEAM disciplines with topics from ethnic studies. For example, students can explore the cultural significance of traditional art forms while also learning about the chemistry of pigments or the mathematics behind geometric patterns. (See sample Ethnic Studies in Physics Lesson by Spacetime Archives, Porandla, 2024.)

Cultural Context in STEM: Integrate discussions of cultural context into STEM subjects to help students understand the real-world implications of scientific and technological advancements. This could involve examining the historical contributions of diverse communities to science and technology or discussing how different cultural perspectives shape the development and application of STEM knowledge.

Critical Analysis: Encourage students to critically analyze how historical and contemporary social factors intersect with scientific and technological developments. This could involve examining issues, such as environmental justice, healthcare disparities, and the impact of colonialism on indigenous knowledge systems.

Inclusive Curriculum: Ensure that curricular materials represent diverse perspectives and include contributions from historically-marginalized communities. This could involve incorporating literature, visual storytelling, artwork and historical narratives from a wide range of cultural backgrounds into STEAM lessons.

Community Engagement: Partner with local community organizations and cultural institutions to provide students opportunities to engage directly with families and diverse communities and to learn from their experiences (Johnson & Vega, 2019). This could involve field trips, guest speakers and community-based research projects.

By integrating STEAM and ethnic studies, educators can provide students with a more holistic understanding of the world, fostering empathy, critical thinking and a deeper appreciation for diversity and social justice. Furthermore, as students improve communication and other power skills through ethnic studies, they strengthen their development in the technical areas of STEM.


Goodman, C.L. (February 2018). School-Based Strategies for Supporting Girls in Technology – With Perspectives from a 14-Year-Old Coder. IDRA Newsletter.

Heaverlo, C.A., Cooper, R., & Santos Lannan, F. (2013). STEM Development: Predictors for 6th-12th Grade Girls’ Interest and Confidence in Science and Math. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

Hernández, M., Lokensgard, J., Rosales, H., Montemayor, A.M., & Quintanilla-Muñoz, C. (2024). MAS for Our Schools – A Youth Participatory Action Research Project on the Status of Mexican American Studies in San Antonio. IDRA.

Johnson, P., & Vega, M. (October 2019). Strategies for Increasing Girls’ Participation in STEM. IDRA Newsletter.

Johnson, P. (February 2016). STEM Pathways for Girls of Color – A Review of the Literature. IDRA Newsletter.

Porandla, R. (2024). Why should we prioritize educational equity? Spacetime Archives.

Rodríguez, R.G., & García, J.C. (January 2014). Building Interest in STEM through Language Development and Storytelling. IDRA Newsletter.

Rubin, A. (December 5, 2023). STEM gender gap shows no signs of closing with Gen Z. Axios.

Shmerling, R.H. (March 24, 2022). Right brain/left brain, right? Harvard Health Publishing.

Texas Cultural Trust. (2023). State of the Arts Report – Support the Arts, Support Texas.

Wang, C., Shen, J., & Chao, J. (December 2022). Integrating Computational Thinking in STEM Education: A Literature Review. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be sent to him via email at aurelio.montemayor@idra.org. Stephanie García, Ph.D., is IDRA’s STEM and gender equity education specialist. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at stephanie.garcia@idra.org. Asaiah Puente, Ed.D. is an IDRA consultant.

As students improve communication and other power skills through ethnic studies, they strengthen their development in the technical areas of STEM.

[© 2024, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May edition of the IDRA Newsletter. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]