STEAM Learning Builds a Mindset That Helps Students Now and in the Future

Prior to becoming the STEAM coordinator, I worked with middle school students for 12 years and loved the opportunity to support them as they explore their identity and find their place in the world. I am continually seeking new challenges, so when I heard how the digital literacy position was evolving to fit under the STEAM umbrella, thanks in large part to our receipt of a Goizueta Foundation grant,  I jumped at it. 

I am excited to learn and grow as an educator now that I also teach K-5 students and to combine my abilities to facilitate experiential education, which I gathered as an Outward Bound instructor, with the knowledge and skills I have from studying computer and information science from undergrad through to my doctorate. 

My new role as STEAM coordinator is a shift from years past when we had a digital literacy specialist, but digital literacy is still very much a part of STEAM education. Students need to understand how to find healthy amounts of screen time, how to access and assess digital information,  how to create rich and valid content, how to protect their own privacy, how to engage with others respectfully, and what to do about cyberbullying.

STEAM Education at TCS
The Children’s School’s approach to STEAM education is as much a mindset as a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. It is based on constructionism, developed by Seymour Papert, a student-centered model of education that allows students to gather new knowledge based on what they already know. In this model teachers are facilitators, helping students make connections, rather than giving step-by-step instructions. My current favorite book on this is “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom” (Second edition) by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager. 

A big part of this STEAM approach is giving students an opportunity to grow their “persistence muscles.“  To help students build on their own knowledge, rather than going straight to, “Teacher, tell me how to do this,” or “do it for me,” I ask a series of prompts and questions when they come to me. Depending on the situation, these can include, “Remind me what you already know,” “Do you see other people who have figured it out that you could ask?,” “When you help someone, remember to use your words and let them do it,” “What is the most important piece of information that you are missing?” Helping students increase their ability to persist often means that the help they receive does not look they way students want it to look. Recently a first grader excitedly showed me their project, “Look, my circuit works! You wouldn’t help me, so I had to figure it out myself!” I knew I was on the right track.   

During STEAM projects, teachers strive to provide a series of engaging challenges so that students build their problem-solving prowesses, give and take advice to help each other move forward, grow in their ability to persist when faced with frustrations, and build self confidence in their own abilities to create projects they are proud to share. These are all life skills that are needed in an everyday toolbox, not just an academic one. These are skills that will grow with students as they face challenges today in class, on the playground, at the dinner table, in high school, and beyond. By practicing and growing these skills during engaging projects, students increase their confidence and self-reliance skills, consciously or unconsciously. By having a growth mindset when faced with a challenge students come to embrace  a willingness to learn new skills, to know that they have the ability to gather new information, to rely on their ability to initiate and communicate effectively in collaboration, and to develop patience to continue exploring new possibilities when the going gets tough. 

As the school year continues to unfold in the STEAM classroom, students will be presented with three types of challenges: programming, 3-D modeling, and electronics. Examples of these are the first graders programming in Scratch animated movies about the life cycle of a seed. Second graders building a 3-D toy with at least one working circuit. Third graders using a variety of electronics to build a robot that performs a function that will make the world a better place. 

Here are some examples of what ‘s happening in the TCS STEAM classroom right now:

  • Kindergarteners are using LEGO bricks (with the specialized shapes like people removed) to make a model of a person, build a physical house for the person to live in, and to create a pet for the person. I was blown away by the variety of ways students created their models and the depth of their answers when I asked questions like, “What makes this a person/house/pet?” Students will combine their LEGO creations to form a village and from there explore how to program a BeeBot robot to travel through the village while leaving the buildings relatively intact.
  • The third grade is designing and creating a marble run. When teaching students how to design in a 3-D environment,  students are given the project upfront, time to play with both the environment and their own approach to the problem, and opportunities to share what they discovered with each other rather than teaching all the skills they might need upfront and then giving them a project to apply that knowledge.  When a student can’t figure out how to do something on their own or with a peer’s support, in this case, lift a 3-D object above the floor, I can help them through it and make them the expert that their peers can ask or if several students have the same need, I can offer a mini-lesson to the whole class. When students are engaged in a challenge and have a learning need, the skills that I offer are much more valuable than when they are given out of context upfront. 
  • In collaboration with Kelley in art, Eliel in music, and educators at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MoDA), sixth-grade students are learning how to program micro:bit computers and integrate them into a musical instrument that they design and build. The plan is to have students play these instruments at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day event on Tues., Nov. 26.

We are working to integrate STEAM into what is happening in individual classrooms. At the beginning of the year, I talked to all teaching teams so that we could plan themes for the STEAM projects. For example, fifth-grade students study Georgia’s Native Americans: the Creek and Muskogee. In STEAM class students learned more about Creek and Muscogee art, chose a symbol from the art, and are learning how to program an app to draw that symbol and make it a repeating pattern. Once they have programmed the pattern they will import it into 3-D design software and make a stamp with the pattern that will be used to create a clay tile.

TCS Math Specialist Tom and I are also working together this year to ensure that we document and assess the math learning that is happening during STEAM projects. This year, we are focusing on kindergarten and fourth grade. Since I don’t have formally scheduled time with Middle Grades students, they can join a variety of STEAM clubs that meet at recess/lunchtime Tuesday-Friday.  This year we’ve also started, “STEAM Buddies” with the Middle Grades students and their younger buddies. Once a month the buddy pairs meet in the STEAM space to solve a variety of challenges together.  

One of the most exciting aspects of this job is that it is based on a growth mindset and taking advantage of opportunities that arise. The music project that sixth grade is doing with our partners at MoDA, evolved based on their “Wire & Wood: Designing Iconic Guitars” exhibit. I’m looking forward to continuing our partnership with MODA and to partnering with other organizations in Atlanta to provide exciting STEAM opportunities for the TCS community.

The Children’s School is partnering with the Peachtree Branch Public Library to host a FREE STEAM Learning Event on Wed., Nov. 20, 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. 

Kelly Lyn will lead a hands-on, STEAM activity geared toward kids ages 9 – 14 that challenges them to be creative and persistent as they use everyday supplies to design an electric circuit to solve an important problem. 

This event is FREE and open to the public, but space is limited. Click here to RSVP and download an invitation to share here.

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