STEM to STEAM
Patrick Waters
October 10, 2016

Just after I had began teaching young people with neurological differences I realized they needed something more than their current learning environment offered. The school where I worked, The Monarch School of Houston, Texas, had a fantastic staff, resources and academic strategies, such as project-based learning. They even had a fledgling outdoor environmental education, but I felt something missing. What exactly did they need?

My students needed an art space, but not the art room. STEM materials and curriculum, but not a hard science lab. Access to computers, but not a computer lab. We needed tools to cut, bend, drill, poke, mutilate and beautify, but not a craft room, not a woodshop. We needed a place for all of those things, because a teacher must create life experiences, academic learning and a safe place to fail all in one room.

My students needed a makerspace, and my thinking needed to move from STEM to STEAM.

Makerspaces are environments that foster passion for projects of all stripes and sizes. If you can dream it, a makerspace will help you breathe life into it.  

I christened the makerspace the STEAMworks. The STEAM, as I told anyone who would listen, stood for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The “works” came from what we accomplished there. Even though I was a science and math teacher, I realized a needed to integrate the arts into the science curriculum. The arts play a crucial role in child/learner development and can benefit the STEM classroom and workplace.

STEAM benefits

Young people benefit from arts education in a myriad of ways. As described in Critical Evidence: How Arts Benefit Student Achievement, arts instruction can develop cognitive and social skills, increase motivation and help form a positive school environment when integrated into the classroom curriculum. Students score higher on standardized tests, engage in healthier behaviors at home, increase community involvement and report more engagement in the classroom. For students at risk of dropping out of school, arts can be the major motivator to show up to school. Arts, just like STEM, allows educators to address the whole child. What could happen in your classroom if you could integrate the arts with STEM?

Strategies for arts integration

Successful STEAM programs and projects often have three characteristics in common: 1) collaboration is central to its mission, 2) community partners bring complex problems and needs to the students, and 3) educators actively look for ways to empower their students.

Finding ways to empower students in their educational journey increases engagement, increases positive social connections in the classroom and increases the deep learning.  As a maker teacher, I piloted “choose-your-own-adventure” courses in which the student chooses their next skill, and we developed a project together, which accomplished our learning goals. Each class also had to work on a communal journey, so students had to negotiate with their peers to figure out the next steps. As a maker class, we focused on mastering the engineering design cycle, and we explored many scientific ideas: electricity, rocketry, structure, etc.

Collaboration

Collaboration begins with the educator. Great, authentic projects are hard to development and execute in a vacuum, and demoralizing without the support of others. Look for collaborators in your school and outside your specialty.  

At The Monarch School, one of my recent collaborations involved developing chocolate bars. A student in my maker lab designed, tested and prototyped chocolate bars using the 3D printer. The art teacher used this student's project to develop a graphic arts unit. Art students designed labeling and packaging for the chocolate bar. The Life Academy, a work-skills program, approved the labeling, then asked the makerspace to create a silicone mold. We built the mold, then gave it over for production. All of this collaboration happened with a student at the center. We, the educators, talked through the back channels to keep our various classes on track and flexible with the timing. Working alone, few educators could pull in all those skills or involve three sets of student-learners. Working together, we could.

Community partners

Community partners provide two things to a STEAM educator or maker program: interesting problems and authentic audiences. School -- expect for teachers, admin and such -- can feel artificial, especially to pre-adolesents and adolescent students, as if the “real-world” is just outside the door. Community partners bring the outside in and increase engagement.  

Robotics programs, such as First Robotics, are successful not because of the curriculum, but because the challenges provide authentic audience, from parents to professionals, for student work. Community events also provide built in audiences. 

Brave Little Company, a theater company, brought The Monarch School an opportunity to bring the theater arts into their classroom. Brave Little Company provided actors and film-making support, while The Monarch School provided academic structure and a makerspace for producing props and puppets. Students integrated their science-fiction unit in English with a hands-on creative building process and digital film-making. The end product, a 15-minute video written, filmed and edited by students was shown during the annual academic showcase to the entire school.

Possibilities

Maker education, and makerspaces in general, open up incredible avenues for STEAM education. Puppets can become robots when a young person learns microcontrollers. Groups such as Tikkum Olam Makers offer opportunities to bring together people with disabilities and people who make (sometimes they are the same person!) to create assistive devices. The fashion industry has experimented with laser cut fabrics, mathematically inspired patterns and 3D printed dresses. Graphic designers and creative artists have as many digital tools to build as physical tools.   

Resources

If you are interested in learning more about making, and maker education, check out:

Patrick Waters is an award-winning educator who brings the maker movement to new audiences. He founded The STEAMworks, a makerspace for individuals with neurological differences at The Monarch Institute in Houston, Texas. Patrick will be a panelist during the upcoming SmartBrief event, STEM Pathways: Creating a Blueprint for Success.

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