Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Augmented Reality in STEAM Education

  • Maria Meletiou-MavrotherisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_128-1


The advent of new and emerging technologies and industries has highlighted a future skills gap and the need to equip the young generation with a new skill set in order for them to cope with the demands of modern society. It has led to a paradigm shift from traditional education philosophy toward innovative approaches aimed at cultivating human resources equipped with the knowledge and skills required to meet the needs of the digital era. This shift has fuelled the growth of STEAM education, an integrated approach to the teaching of the different disciplines. STEAM is an acronym for the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. It was developed on the basis of STEM, a transdisciplinary approach that overcame the strict individual borders of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by treating sciences as a single whole. Arts was recently added to the original STEM framework in order to promote learning in more connected and holistic ways. As proponents of the STEAM movement claim, an integrated STEM and Arts curriculum is essential to foster true creativity and innovation by allowing students to use systematic thinking skills that combine the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer (Bazler and Van Sickle 2017). A holistic approach promotes relevancy of learning and better prepares students for their future complex life and work environments.

An emerging technology in the immersive learning landscape that has gained a growing interest among STEAM educators is augmented reality (AR). After providing a definition of AR and describing the main taxonomies of AR tools, this entry presents the key AR technology types currently used in education. It then describes both the affordances and challenges of AR integration within STEAM education. Finally, it draws some conclusions and recommendations regarding the future of AR in STEAM education.

AR Definition and Taxonomies

AR is an emerging form of reality that enhances individuals’ experiences of the real world by overlaying location or context-sensitive virtual information (e.g., text, images, videos, animations with sound, etc.) onto elements of the physical environment (Milgram and Kishino 1994). AR incorporates a broad continuum of computer-generated sensory input (e.g., video, graphics, sound, GPS data) to project virtual content onto users’ perceptions of the real world. It has three fundamental characteristics (Azuma 1997): (i) combination of real-world and virtual elements, (ii) interaction in real time, and (iii) registration in three-dimensional space (i.e., 3D virtual elements intrinsically tied to real-world loci and orientation).

Taking into consideration the wide and continuously increasing spectrum of technologies integrated within AR, one can find different taxonomies of AR in different studies. Cheng and Tsai (2013) distinguished between image-based and location-based AR. Location-based AR detects where the user is positioned and provides virtual information that seamlessly blends with the user’s physical environment (e.g., the game Pokémon Go developed by Niantic). Image-based AR utilizes graphics identification techniques to detect plane images within the real world and then provides to users synthetic information or other elements intersecting with the plane images. Johnson et al. (2010) categorized AR into two types: marker-based and marker-less. In marker-based AR, the marker is a visual cue (e.g., a QR code) provided beforehand, which is recognized by the AR application and triggers the display of virtual information. Marker-less AR depends on the natural features of a surrounding environment rather than on physical markers. Marker-less systems can identify real-world objects (through recognition of patterns, colors, or other features), thus enabling more complex and interactive applications of AR. Using tracking systems such as GPS to estimate digital contents’ physical position in relation to the user’s position, they can use any and all parts of the physical environment as the target for the placement of digital objects.

Educational Uses of AR

Since 2010, when AR technology was integrated into mobile devices, there has been an increasing interest in applying AR in the educational process. AR has been adapted by various educational fields and sectors. Yuen et al. (2011) have classified the educational uses of AR into five broad categories:
  • AR books in education. AR books, which constitute a combination of physical books merged with the interactive potentials provided by digital media, are one of the best examples of AR technology being used in educational processes. By incorporating AR into a physical book, they can transform a static story into a dynamic and engaging reading experience. Through the integration of text, audio, 2D illustrations, 3D virtual content, and animation, AR books can provide an interactive and playful way for engaging students in the learning process and for meeting students’ diverse needs and different learning styles. For instance, visual learners’ needs are addressed through 2D and 3D illustrations; auditory learners can hear sounds throughout the book, and kinesthetic learners can engage in tactile activities utilizing mobile devices.

  • AR gaming. AR games refer to digital games played in a real-world setting with a virtual layer on top of them. They can be used for the creation of virtual people and objects that can, in turn, be connected with specific places in the real world, thus allowing players to interact with both the objects in the virtual world and people in the real world.

  • AR discovery-based learning. By enabling access to additional information (texts, maps, audio content, videos) and interaction with 3D models through actions such as rotation and customization, AR applications can enhance users’ live experience through discovery-based learning. For example, in museums, exhibits, and archaeological sites, students and other visitors can use AR applications to engage in discovering and learning additional information about what they see (e.g., traveling back in time and seeing how an archaeological site was in ancient times).

  • Objects modelling. AR enables students to interact with 3D models/displays. They can customize and/or interact with virtual objects by rotating them or by setting their transparency, styles, color scheme, and even parts. Students can also use AR to model objects, having thus the opportunity to visualize their ideas and revise them.

  • Skills training. AR can enhance skills development for learners by creating authentic learning experiences that relate the nature of information to the real world. AR applications have, for example, been used by academic institutions and the industry to train individuals in specific tasks (e.g., first-aid training, airplane maintenance, etc.).

Benefits of AR for STEAM Education

AR has become a technology accessible to almost everyone through everyday devices such as tablets and smartphones. This access to AR offers considerable benefits for STEAM education at all educational levels and learning contexts (formal, informal, open, lifelong). Some of these benefits are outlined next.

Improved Motivation and Learning of STEAM Subjects

AR systems offer a powerful means of creating immersive learning experiences that would otherwise be impossible, too costly, or too dangerous to provide to students (e.g., explosions). They help to bridge the gap between the real and virtual world, overcoming the lack of realism characterizing virtual reality (VR) and offering the affordances of presence, immediacy, and immersion. Rather than placing the user inside a totally computer-based environment like VR does, AR presents information directly registered to the real world. As a result, virtual elements appear to become part of the physical environment, at least in the user’s perception. STEAM educators have been exploring these new possibilities in immersive learning offered by AR technologies to provide learners with engaging and realistic simulations of exploration, such as interactive field trips and enlivened laboratories (e.g., Mavrotheris et al. 2018).

Although the amount of available research concerning AR integration into STEAM teaching and learning is still relatively small due to the novelty of both AR technologies and the STEAM approach, the majority of existing studies conclude with positive results concerning AR use within STEAM education. These studies demonstrate that the seamless interconnection of the virtual and the real world offered by AR makes the learning process more relevant and enjoyable for students, thus increasing their motivation and engagement (Chen et al. 2017). Exploiting important affordances of AR environments such as realism, immersion, and situational awareness has also been found to improve students’ learning of STEAM subjects (Chen et al. 2017). By enabling users to manipulate virtual objects while, at the same time, interacting with real-world surroundings, AR applications promote authentic learning and “learning by doing,” utilizing visualizations to make abstract STEAM concepts more tangible and concrete (e.g., using AR mobile apps to give students a view of outer space, communicating complex spatial concepts in three or more dimensions). AR focuses students’ attention on the learning process, providing opportunities for more authentic and situated learning, which can be useful for accommodating multiple learning styles and for helping students develop contextual awareness, and improved conceptual understanding of key STEAM concepts.

Using cutting-edge AR technologies can also stimulate and nurture students’ attitudes and interest toward STEAM studies and careers, helping to reverse the “STEM pipeline” problem, i.e., young people’s tendency to make study and occupation choices outside of science and engineering (Katzis et al. 2018).

Promotion of Transversal Competencies

In addition to the promotion of improved knowledge and attitudes toward STEAM studies and careers, involvement in high-quality AR-enriched STEAM experiences can help students build important transversal competencies (twenty-first century skills) including the following:
  • Communication and collaboration skills. When involved in AR apps, students need to communicate with the digital content (e.g., interact with a virtual character). Modern AR systems also enable collaboration (multiuser communication) among users. At the same time, remaining in the physical environment is an AR characteristic that allows face-to-face communication among learners. When involved in AR activities, students usually work in teams, brainstorming ideas, presenting possible solutions, exchanging feedback, and reaching consensus. This supports the development of their interpersonal and collaborative skills and the development of quality outputs that reflect the combined wisdom of all team members.

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Real-life problems tend to be complicated and disorganized, and tackling them necessitates a well-rounded education and higher-order skills. The instructional integration of AR stimulates learners’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills, in line with one of the key values of STEAM. For example, when using an AR platform (e.g., ARTutor, Metaverse) to create interactive stories, students need to employ critical thinking skills in order to address essential questions such as how one scene transitions to the next, how to create a storyline that makes physical and scientific sense, and how to present it using appealing visual effects.

  • ICT skills. Giving students the opportunity to learn cutting-edge technology skills to create AR experiences helps to transform the school environment to a more technology-friendly one and boosts students’ technology literacy.

  • Programming skills. Some AR apps promote students’ computing skills. AR SPOT, for example, is an AR authoring environment based on the block-based visual programming language Scratch. It allows children to use drag-and-drop programming to create experiences mixing real and virtual elements. They can display virtual objects on a real-world scene observed through a video camera, and they can control the virtual world through interactions between physical objects. Similarly, using Integem’s visual programming language iCreator, students can program holographic AR experiences.

  • Creativity and innovation. Integration of AR-supported learning activities (e.g., storytelling, animation making, game development) expands the range of creative experiences for students, allowing them to discover, express, and practice their innovative and outside-the-box thinking skills, as well as their ability to become creators and not just passive users of technology.

Promotion of Design Thinking

AR projects are well suited for adopting the design thinking methodology, a transdisciplinary and outside-the-box approach to problem-solving focused on the user. Being key to the success of many high-profile international organizations (e.g., Google, Apple, Airbnb) and being taught by leading universities globally, this methodology has become increasingly popular, since it is considered very effective in solving complex, real-world problems and building human-centric products. Design thinking involves brainstorming sessions of a design team, aimed at challenging assumptions and creating innovative, user-focused products and services, which are then prototyped, tested, and refined in a nonlinear, iterative process.

The application of design thinking methodology in STEAM education encourages learning based on constructionist and sociocultural learning theories. The involvement of students in practices relating to the design and creation of new products promotes the transdisciplinary type of learning aimed at by STEAM programs, since to successfully complete the activities students need to apply knowledge and skills learned across STEAM disciplines. Combining the utilization of AR tools with appropriate pedagogical practices, the application of the design thinking methodology can offer students once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can enhance their motivation and knowledge of STEAM subjects while at the same time also contributing to the development of important twenty-first century skills.

Currently, attempts are made for introducing design thinking in STEAM school curricula, in order to build students’ design thinking skills at a young age. A good example of how this could be achieved is the AR mural work/study project, coordinated by the STEMarts Lab (http://www.stemartslab.com), a research Lab providing innovative sci-art and STEAM youth programming for the Paseo Festival and for TISA (Taos Integrated School of the Arts) in Taos New Mexico. In this project, STEMarts Lab brought in artists that had been exploring AR technology to collaborate with a class of eighth grade students in order to paint a mural for a new frozen yogurt store. The students worked together with the artists and with the shop’s owners to design and create an AR mural that made the whole space interactive – with animated images popping off the wall when pointing a smartphone or iPad at the mural. In line with the design thinking approach, students were involved in all stages of the mural production, from visiting the space and meeting the “clients,” to developing the concept, to designing the technology that creates an AR experience for visitors. This involvement provided them with invaluable real-world, community-based STEAM skills.

Challenges of AR Use in STEAM Education

Although AR technologies hold great promise and opportunities for transforming teaching and learning, there are several challenges which need to be addressed, including the following:
  • Financial and time constraints, as AR can sometimes be expensive to implement

  • Technical and/or pedagogical constraints of available AR apps, which might include limited scaffolding of the learning experience, inadequate model quality, poor simulation preciseness, and lack of haptic feedback (Birt and Cowling 2017)

  • Students’ frustration if they find it difficult to use an AR application or if the application is not working appropriately

  • Students’ distraction from the learning process caused by the virtual information when presented to them for the first time

  • Disruption of natural interaction with others when using HDM (head-mounted displays)

  • Teachers’ failure to realize the benefits of AR in schools

  • Teachers’ lack of time and/or interest in getting familiarized with this new technology and in introducing it into the educational process

  • Limited number of freely available AR authoring tools that are easy for teachers to use

  • Limited AR educational material available for teachers to use

  • Teachers’ lack of skills and/or time in creating new learning content incorporating AR

  • Lack of professional development opportunities and support for teachers

Within a design-based research project, Dunleavy et al. (2009) conducted multiple qualitative case studies across two middle schools and one high school in Northeastern USA to document the affordances and limitations of AR simulations. Participating teachers and students reported that the technology-mediated narrative and the interactive, situated, and collaborative problem-solving affordances of the AR simulation were highly engaging, especially among students who had previously presented behavioral and academic challenges for the teachers. However, while the AR simulation provided potentially transformative added value, it simultaneously presented some unique technological, managerial, and cognitive challenges to teaching and learning. For example, students participating in the study experienced a cognitive overload, as there were instances where they were overwhelmed and confused with the provided amount of information and with the tasks they had to complete. In addition, there were instances where students became so engaged within the game environment of the AR simulations that they lost track of the real environment, something which can constitute a threat to students’ physical safety.


AR can transform STEAM teaching and learning by offering personalized and seamless learning experiences that move beyond static presentation, limited interaction, and the walls and confines of formal schooling. AR technologies enable the introduction of participatory, interactive, sensory-rich, and experimental learning activities that provide enhanced opportunities for student input, innovation, and creativity (Birt and Cowling 2017). However, while AR presents some exciting opportunities for augmenting students’ engagement and learning and for better preparing them for a demanding future labor market, there are some technical and pedagogical challenges that still prevent its mainstream adoption by academic institutions.

The wide and effective integration of AR technologies within STEAM education necessitates careful strategic planning and reflective implementation grounded in solid research. This should focus on the broad preparation and ongoing engagement of all key stakeholders involved in the educational process (students, parents, pre- and in-service teachers, teacher educators and other college faculty, adult educators, educational leaders, technical managers, administrators). These stakeholders should be helped to recognize the added value of AR technologies, and their true potential for improving teaching, learning, and assessment, and should be informed about best practices in their exploitation as instructional tools. Teachers, in particular, should be provided with high-quality professional development that will equip them with the required knowledge and skills to effectively infuse AR into STEAM teaching and learning. This should be accompanied with the equipping of classrooms with appropriate AR tools (e.g., user-friendly AR authoring platforms) and with the provision of technical support for teachers during implementation. Finally, an important precondition for the widespread adoption of AR technologies is the reconstruction of school curricula and methods of assessment so as to more closely align with the features of AR and with the principles underlying STEAM education.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European University CyprusNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Parsons
    • 1
  1. 1.The Mind LabAucklandNew Zealand