Learning across disciplines: A collective case study of two university programs that integrate the arts with STEM

Ghanbari, S. (2015). Learning across disciplines: A collective case study of two university programs that integrate the arts with STEM. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(7).


Recent research has suggested the arts are well-suited to be combined with science, technology, engineering and math disciplines making the STEM acronym STEAM. STEM education is an educational and political priority in the United States and is valued as a means of strengthening national security and ensuring global competitiveness. The STEAM model emphasizes the importance of STEM education, but contends the arts can create new ways of seeing, thinking, and learning. This study aims to share collegiate student learning experiences in two established university programs that integrate an arts discipline with a STEM discipline over the timespan of one year. Student and alumni interviews are compared within a collective case study to explore the role of arts integration, collaboration, and experience-centered learning in knowledge creation.

Key Findings:

Students and alumni from both the ArtScience and ArtTechnology programs examined in this study demonstrated several examples of collaborative learning through a deliberately hands-on and experiential approach. Participants in the ArtScience program described high levels of learning retention and an increase in the enjoyment in learning. Participants in the ArtTechnology program identified increased focus on professional development that would help with future career goals. Another finding from the ArtTechnology program was a broadening of student’s perspectives in terms of looking at challenges in life, career and study from a new angle.

Significance of the Findings:

Students and alumni from the examined programs described learning outcomes focused on professional development and knowledge retention and became increasingly collaborative as the study progressed. For higher education policy makers, these findings imply that there is reason to develop coursework that blends the arts with STEM and make STEAM programs accessible to all majors. This research is particularly relevant for educators creating STEAM programming at the K-16 levels. The findings affirm the positive results from bringing together individuals from multiple backgrounds to engage in inquiry-based coursework that integrates the arts with STEM.


This research employs a collective-case study methodology, or the study of more than one case to inquire into a particular topic, that examines and compares data collected from two existing university programs. The selected university programs are bound by the following criteria: they must integrate at least one arts discipline with at least one STEM discipline, reside within a Research I university, and have been available to students for at least five years. Eighteen interviews were conducted with students and alumni from the ArtScience program and nine interviews were conducted with students and alumni from the ArtTechnology program. The ArtScience program is comprised of 175 to 250 students per year and the ArtTechnology program is required study for 3,625 students. Interview data was recorded and transcribed. Patterns in the responses to the interviews showed three main areas of perceived improvement from each program which were then explored in the findings.

Limitations of the Research:

The limitations of this study deal with the scope. For instance, the researchers had data from a limited of participants from only two programs. In addition, the large difference between the program sizes accentuated the differences in the resources and outcomes; for example, only the ArtTechnology program had established and published student learning outcomes. Finally, the longevity of these programs (5 or more years) does not allow for the generalization to newer or smaller programs.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research on STEAM programs with established learning outcomes should be conducted to see if there are enrichments that occur with integration of the arts. Additional research on STEAM programming outside of university settings also stands to benefit the field. Potential questions to guide future research include:

Do STEAM programs boost creativity in our workforce?

Are K-16 STEAM programs equally accessible to students of varying socio-economic status and/or minority status?

Do these types of interdisciplinary experiential programs help retain minority, or first generation students?