STEAM is the latest push to create students who are scientifically and technologically literate and able to solve real-world problems. This is a fantastic goal that we here at DataWORKS wholeheartedly endorse. Unfortunately, the jargon that underlies many STEAM lessons and programs suggests that projects, programs, and methods boil down to very little teaching.
STEAMing Hot Mess
All too many programs and lesson plans boil down to giving students a project to work on, and it is assumed that they will magically learn all of the relevant sub-skills and prior knowledge needed, independently. This is likely to produce several interesting bits of poster board and a couple of poorly-typed paragraphs. It may even warrant glitter and puff paint. But outside of the high performing students, it won’t result in a significant amount of scientific discovery, learning, or novel solutions.
Inquiry and project-based learning only really works for high-performing kids. This is born out in the research time and time again. We attended the California Department of Education’s 2nd Annual STEM Symposium. We saw a whole lot of very interesting gadgets for students that were excellent. What we didn’t see much of was teaching. There were a lot of materials for projects that assumed learning would happen in the course of a project. Instead of learning through projects, students should be applying the knowledge and skills they already have and integrating them into a single large project. This allows students to explore their learning in ways that go beyond traditional EDI lessons. Bringing together varied and discreet skills and applying them to real-world situations helps students to better retain information, to better recognize what skills are required for a given task, and to perform those skills outside of the confines of the normal student work provided by textbooks. A STEAM-oriented project should have students working collaboratively to solve a problem, inspired by the real world, that builds on skills that students already know, but in new ways.
To get the most out of any sort of STEAM-oriented project, students have to already be familiar with the skills and concepts that they will be applying. That is to say, projects should be the application of already learned skills and knowledge. Students need a reasonably good understanding of the discreet skills needed within the larger task. Designing projects should go beyond simply coming up with a cool idea. We have seen several very interesting projects that have completely collapsed when students did not know the skills necessary to really understand and thrive within the activity. Conversely, the students who successfully finished the project could not answer a single question outside of their project material.
When designing STEAM-oriented projects, you should remember three things. First, understand what skills and concepts your students already know. Don’t forget to include applicable concepts from earlier in the year. The entire point behind these projects should be applying a wide variety of skills to real-world problems.
Second, be aware of the skills that students will need to learn in order to do the project. Students will need an EDI lesson on each prerequisite skill before they start on that part of the project. Remember that the project is an opportunity to apply skills already learned in a new and innovative way. Students might be asked to create an equation to keep track of their budget on a project. But first, students have to know how the order of operations works in equations and how to use variables to represent quantities.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to have slightly contrived processes within the project. Having the students create that equation within the budgeting problem above is a good intermediary step to having students program the budget into a spreadsheet. This is something that they may or may not do on their own, but this is a good opportunity to have students show their work in a non-traditional assignment. Structuring projects so they are achievable is important. Avoid a very general prompt. Be explicit in the expectations and processes of the assignment. Students should have a fairly clear idea of what they have to do to complete the assignment.
Extra-Curricular Activities: Letting Off Some STEAM
STEAM skills can also be taught outside of the regular classroom. There are several opportunities for students to participate in engineering and design-themed competitions. Examples include Destination ImagiNation, First Lego League, and many others. There are several formats for this, but all include an entire team of students with a variety of jobs. These include designing and constructing a robot, programming it, keeping track of a budget, and piloting the robot. The variety of jobs requires students to work together to get their robot to complete its task and encompasses a wide variety of skills. These kinds of competitions can also be excellent resources for ideas for classroom projects.