STEAM works its magic in and out of school

Our world is changing rapidly, and to make sure that students are prepared for the future, many schools are focusing on the principles of STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. The lessons learned, however, often extend beyond facts about those subject areas.

Here are some unique and creative STEAM projects happening at schools around the Chicago area that are fostering not only academic interests but also teaching valuable life lessons.

Creating movies and new mindsets

The middle school film-making class at Chicago Friends School uses STEAM principles to craft its films.

“Their approach is informed by design thinking in the field of mechanical engineering. To tell the story they want to tell, students must consider optics, audio sampling and frame rates, in addition to more typical art forms of scene and costume design, creative writing and acting,” says Karen Carney, head of school.

Eric Patrick, associate professor of film at Northwestern, is the film-making teacher at Chicago Friends and he helps students see first-hand that what they learn in one class can coincide with the lesson from another.

“There’s always been an idea that someone is good at math or art, but not both. But contemporary design requires a broad and not just deep knowledge,” Patrick says. “With experiential classroom environments, students have a better sense of the interplay of these fields rather than having them taught in isolation through rote memorizing.”

Carney says STEAM projects help students develop their own creativity and sense of self.

Programming and problem solving

“As a teacher, I like that STEAM utilizes students’ problem-solving skills, and they can always use practice with that,” says Katy Rudis, a technology teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Elmhurst. There, students are working on digitally editing photos captured in art class as well as learning coding and software programming skills.

Rudis notes that both projects challenge students’ higher-level thinking skills now, and that can pay big dividends later.

“Finding new ways to approach a problem is really important as a life skill. Students may not realize it, but they’re learning how to find different solutions and that will propel them in their jobs and their life.”

Learning about reefs, relevance and re-dos

Vanguard Gifted Academy in Batavia has added in a researching/reading component, transforming STEAM into STREAM. Students recent did a project on coral reefs. They created replicas of coral reefs from recyclables, painted the layers of the ocean, calculated the rate of deterioration of the reefs, created a book about the symbiotic relationships on the reef, and learned how to help save the reef.

Elizabeth Blaetz, head of school, says that with this model, students who may not be comfortable with certain subject areas “grow to like and sometimes love” new subject areas because now they see the relevance to topics they like and to their lives.

STEAM can help students learn to persevere, noting that Vanguard creates “a safe learning environment where errors and re-dos are normal expected parts of the learning process.”

She says that helps children see the internal gratification of success that comes from effort and persistence. “They build endurance and a willingness to take a risk, be creative or try a new strategy because they know how to handle mistakes and failures,” she says.

3D history: Past and future go hand-in-hand

The Avery Coonley School n Downers Grove has partnered with TinkerWorks, which is on site at the school’s maker space four days a week. The kids are loving it, and learning that success often requires trial and error.

“Our kids recognize that it’s OK to not know all the answers,” says Druzinsky of their time in the maker space.

The interdisciplinary approach of STEAM is evidence there by the incorporation of STEAM projects into all classes, including the humanities. For example, in history class, students may work in the Maker Space to design a fabrication of the Chicago skyline prior to the Great Fire or use the 3D printer to replicate items used in colonial times.

Druzinsky explains that the project that uses recent technology of the future to help kids better understand what happened over a century ago is illustrative of Avery Coonley integration of STEAM into the curriculum. “It is the best of the past, present and future—that’s what excites me the most. All are so important, and we don’t want to lose one for the sake of the other,” he says.

Math and social justice go together

Frances Xavier Warde School in Chicago recently implemented a new math curriculum, providing the staff with an opportunity to look at incorporating both math and other STEAM subjects throughout the curriculum.

“We kept at the forefront that we want to make real-world connections and STEAM is a way to explore social issues and injustices,” explains Jackie Miller, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction.

For example, students examine climate change from a variety of perspectives, including the science behind it as well as the math around the statistics of its impact over time.

The different disciplines are also being taught more similarly than in the past. “An inquiry-based model is common in science curriculum, but less so in math. We’ve changed that, and we have a more inquiry-focused model so we are teaching through problem solving, not just with problem solving,” Miller says.

As a result, they are focusing on the power of mistakes and struggle.

“If we want students to go into the STEAM fields, we need all students to feel that they can be successful. To do that, we have to model what productive struggle looks like,” Miller says.


This article originally appeared in the issue of Chicago Parent’s Making the Grade. Read the rest of the issue.

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