Written By: Sara Lepley

For years, educators have viewed science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as the apex of learning; get students excited about STEM and innovation will follow.

Considering the advent of design in innovation, however, it may be time to incorporate art and design into the acronym.

Science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) advocates propose we explore opportunities where applied arts can fit into and enhance the overall STEM curriculum. In doing so, we can discover new models for creative problem solving and better our nation’s economic competitiveness. Advocates also point out that art-based activities work to draw young people in by igniting their imaginations.

As the communications manager for Virginia Tech’s EcoCAR 3 team, I see first-hand how EcoCAR 3 embraces a STEAM education approach.

EcoCAR 3 is a premier intercollegiate engineering competition in which students transform a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro into a hybrid electric vehicle. The competition fosters interdisciplinary, hands-on learning.

One benefit of STEAM education that EcoCAR 3 takes advantage of is how artists can communicate complex material in effective and interesting ways to the general public.

A key role of the communications team is to host outreach events for the community. We speak with influencers to demonstrate the importance of sustainability, innovation, and hands-on learning. We also work with consumers, enticing them to look at hybrids as great investments. With youth audiences, we hope to instill a love of learning, and an appreciation for the environment.

Employing a STEAM education approach is especially beneficial to us when working with children. Research has found that engaging students’ strengths using art activities increases motivation and the probability of STEM success, as reported by Education Week.


We decided to give the concept a shot at Education Day, a segment of EcoCAR 3 Winter Workshop in which middle and high school students visited NXP to learn about engineering.

We had the students brainstorm what the Camaro should look like and how it should interact with the driver and passengers. Students dreamed up ideas such as having images of nature light up on car doors when the car drove in electric mode and having a Siri-esque voice that chats with drivers. After the brainstorming session, the kids learned how engineering practices, such as coding, can make those ideas come to life.

In a survey, nearly 90 percent of the kids who participated in the activity reported they found it “highly enjoyable.” Another 75 percent reported that after the activity and lesson, they considered design to be “very important” to the automotive industry.

Considering that these students live in Austin—a city posed to be the next Silicon Valley and where General Motors opened a location catering specifically to technology developers—we felt great seeing the students get so excited about technology design.

Incorporating “art” also means including students who might not normally have any investment in STEM.

The communications component of the EcoCAR 3 competition, for example, includes students in the art, communications, and English departments of the university. Those students get to capitalize on their strengths while supporting their team in the competition.

Personally, I’ve always been more right-brained than left. Engineering seemed uninteresting and, frankly, a little over my head. With EcoCAR 3, however, I’ve discovered how interesting and impactful engineering innovation can be. I get to do what I love, such as writing and planning exciting events, while learning about the automotive industry. Not only do I love my job and my team, but I also have a new appreciation and understanding of the STEM fields.

People have different strengths and interests. Adding “art” to the STEM conversation means including more bright, talented people to contribute to innovation in our country.