Explaining STEM and STEAM

Explaining STEM and STEAM

Some of the letters of STEAM are more rare in the slush piles.

by Jan Fields

April 22, 2021

If you've spent much time reading guidelines recently, especially those for educational publishers, you've almost certainly run across one of two acronyms related to nonfiction: STEM or STEAM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and STEAM is the same with the addition of art. Now it might seem that this covers the majority of nonfiction for kids, especially when art is slipped in, but some of the letters of STEAM are more rare in the slush piles and thus even more interesting to publishers. And your odds even with fiction submissions can be improved with a STEAM element.

Keep in mind that the most successful nonfiction these days is focused and specific. The kind of surface nonfiction that surveys a large topic has become less popular with publishers. It's still coming out (especially with educational publishers) but once they have a single survey book on a topic, the need for survey books on that topic is filled for the publisher. But writers who create focused books, can find room because they are drilling down and offering new information. And for readers who were interested in the survey books, the specific, focused books help fill a hunger for more.

For many writers, the only science writing they've considered is possibly a fairly general piece on some animal or other, but science covers far more and it's the less considered areas of science that are actually in higher demand. If you don't mind research and writing about the geological forces that shape our world, then publishers would be interested in hearing from you. If you find climate an interesting topic and can make the complexity of the topic understandable, your acceptance rates can definitely increase. If you know chemistry well enough to create simple, safe, and unique activities that excite and engage children, then you can make a career out of it. Science is hot. And much of this is because educators are often looking for engaging science materials to use in the classroom to supplement (or even replace) textbooks.


Technology can be tricky to write about because the topic is complex and the changes come fast and furious in this field. For example, a book on artificial intelligence might be full of cutting edge information when it is written, but runs the risk of focusing on tech that is already obsolete by the time the book is published. But many kids are fascinated by technology and many teachers recognize that helping children learn about technology is important for the future. Today's avid Minecraft player might be tomorrow's software creator. So what are some of the best ways for writers to research and write about technology? There are several possible approaches. One is to create narrative nonfiction focused on specific tech creators so that children can see the people behind the tech (and see their own potential place there some day). Another is to write nonfiction about the evolving nature of technology or to write about a very specific bit of technology designed to solve a very specific problem. For example, a piece on bomb defusing robots would interest children and could give information on how these robots have changed (and are changing) to be better for the job. Telling a story or focusing very specifically are good ways to catch this fast moving topic for today's readers.

This topic often goes hand in hand with technology. For example, the creation of robots is both a technology and an engineering exercise. So anything about robotics will tend to encompass both. Like technology, writing about engineering requires the ability to make complex topics simple without losing accuracy. Not everyone can do it, so if you can, this topic is one of the most wide open. Sourcebooks Explore has even published a board book on engineering written by a physicist, ABCs of Engineering, so interest in this subject is broad.

Kids are fascinated by inventions and by machines, so (as with technology) one of the ways the topic of engineering is often covered is through narrative nonfiction focused on engineers and inventors. This is especially true of inventors and engineers from under-represented groups, including minorities and women. Another approach is through creating activities that allow the reader to build something, especially if the thing built illustrates some important engineering concepts. So though the topic can be complex, it is also popular and open to more.


Arts came late to the party as the designation of STEM nonfiction didn't originally include them and some still resist this addition. The art in STEAM often looks at art and creativity as a means of problem solving.  Artists invent and innovate all the time so the things that make nonfiction valuable for encouraging the best thinkers of tomorrow also holds true for books about art. And art nonfiction can also cross the barrier to other categories as nonfiction can look at how technology has uncovered hidden masterpieces or how art and engineering are married in much of architecture. An arch, for instance, is aesthetically appealing but it's also an incredibly strong structure from an engineering standpoint, so an architectural design might include arches for both reasons. In education, tight budgets have been hard on art education, but when art is looked at as important for the same reasons as the STEM categories, it can help bring it back to importance in schools.

So what do writers do with the art category of STEAM. Well, as with all the others, narrative nonfiction on specific artists are popular (though presently a bit less popular than other areas of STEAM). The biographies that offer the most appeal often look at subjects who blended art and engineering or blended art with some other STEAM category. This kind of "two birds with one book" strategy can make such a biography especially appealing to publishers. We all know about Leonardo Da Vinci and the ways in which he blended both art and engineering, but have you considered how every pop-up book was designed by someone who was both artist and engineer? Beyond biographies, art activities and crafts are also a frequent purchase for many magazines and some book publishers, making this another good way for the creative writer to build credits.

The final category in STEAM is math, and this is often the most underserved of the STEAM categories. Partly this is because so many writers don't find math interesting and therefore cannot write about it in an engaging way. But if you are one of those people who loves both math and writing, the door hangs wide open for you. I often see calls for picture books that illustrate math concepts. Representative published fiction in this category include Equal Shmequal by Virginia Kroll, Seven Golden Rings by Rajani LaRocca, and Math Curse by Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith. Biographies of mathematicians are another way to approach math, and representative books include Maryam's Magic by Megan Reid, and Emmy Noether by Helaine Becker, and for older readers, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Also, as with the other categories, activities that can make math more fun for readers are hugely popular. It's a bit harder to sell expository nonfiction (the nonfiction of facts and information) in this category but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen with books like ABCs of Mathematics by Chris Ferrie for very young children and The Language of the Universe by Colin Stewart.

No matter what area within the umbrella of STEAM interests you, consider trying your hand at some writing for this eternally hungry market. Book publishers and magazines are looking for STEAM writers every day.

Could you be one of them?

Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.

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Jan Fields
April 27, 2021

Thanks for sharing that, Mary. Always good to see how these things work in actual books.

Paula K. Feder
April 26, 2021

I'm interested in writing regarding the ART in STEAM. What are some publishers interested in this part of STEAM? I have the idea already in mind. Thanks.

Mary Morgan
April 22, 2021

I write mystery books for pre-teens set in national parks. Each one has a theme that readers can learn from. My eighth title is Lava Chasers in Volcanoes National Park and this one is all STEAM. I interviewed and worked with an elementary STEM teacher from Lansing, MI who guided me as to what children learn in the various grades. It took a lot of research to put it all together, but the book is filled with scientific experiments that kids can do underwater, underground, and above ground to alert people a volcanic eruption is about to happen. Kids who are into science are loving it because it everything they are learning in the upper elementary grades.

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