Research has repeatedly shown that children learn best from interdisciplinary learning, and many schools are using STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – and STEAM – science, technology, engineering, the arts and math – projects as a way to help their students learn.
Throughout Chicagoland, these projects are enhancing student learning in a variety of interesting, innovative ways.
“Current scientific research and engineering are not done in a single lab with a lone scientist. Instead, it is done as collaborations with experts from several different fields and disciplines, and, often times, from different parts of the globe,” says Beth Sanzenbacher, science instructional leader at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. “STEM/STEAM projects are essential because … they are able to experience how several disciplines, such as science, math and engineering, work together seamlessly to solve problems and answer questions.”
Sanzenbacher says Bernard Zell offers STEM/STEAM projects from nursery through eighth grade.
“We work to develop inherent wonder and curiosity in all children to better understand and develop questions about our world and universe,” she says. “We engender a passion for science, math, engineering and the arts that equips students with the analytical skills to become lifelong learners.”
For example, Bernard Zell sixth-grader become ecologists in Wallcology, a cyber learning collaboration with the Tom Moher Lab in the Learning Science Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The project gives students a complex virtual ecosystem, where they design and conduct investigations focusing on topics such as population ecology, energy flow in ecosystems, predator-prey relationships, adaptation and response to environmental change.
Students use their interactions with cyber ecosystems to become environmental engineers and figure out how to solve specific problems, like preserving a high level of biodiversity within the ecosystem or farming a specific species.
They then apply their knowledge to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, where they learn about the problems the dunes face and take steps towards becoming stewards of their environment, she says.
The Children’s School in Berwyn is a progressive, project-based environment for students where all subjects and disciplines are integrated into projects.
“At TCS, most projects include a research (reading and writing) component, a math component (often around measuring and building in the younger grades and use of data and statistics in the upper grades), and an artistic component in building or design,” says Christina Martin, director of curriculum and instruction at TCS.
Martin believes all subjects – science, technology, engineering, math and art, as well as social studies, literacy, economics, culture and current events – should be part of the child’s school experience.
“That is what will prepare them for the world they will inhabit as adults. When adults think about a particular issue or problem, the best problem-solving comes from considering not just the perspective of one discipline, but a range of responses and ideas,” she says. “The segregation of human knowledge into distinct separate disciplines is a convention of convenience for schools rather than the best way to approach learning (or life).”
At TCS, first-graders might explore space by building a space shuttle in their classroom out of cardboard, duct tape and other materials, Martin says. They might try on the roles of various astronauts and scientists on a space mission.
“Reading, writing, math, science and social studies concepts will all come into play. The teacher must be very skilled to wrap the grade-level curricular goals in these areas around the high-interest, extremely motivating project of building the space shuttle. The entire experience is intricately connected with play because play is so central to 6-year-olds’ experience,” she says.
GEMS World Academy-Chicago has incorporated a transdisciplinary approach to teaching students since the school’s inception three years ago, says Elysia Sheehan, founding art and design teacher for the school.
For example, during a second-grade study of weather, the science teacher and art teacher lead a field study walk over to The Art Institute of Chicago to investigate how Gustave Caillebotte portrays weather in his painting Paris Street; Rainy Day, Sheehan says.
“The students sit with their oversized sketchbooks in front of the painting and begin to draw with the art teacher. The science teacher asks questions while they are drawing, such as, ‘If the painting is of a cloudy day where it has just rained, then how are there shadows on the ground? Can the sun still shine through clouds?’ and ‘What time of day might it be if the shadows are at a 75 degree angle?’”
The goal of the project-based approach is to raise 21st century learners.
“This goal creates students that can go beyond googling the answer to a question,” she says. “One important component of a 21st century learner is learning to ask questions. The arts provide an access point for students to investigate the world around them, ask questions and learn to have difficult conversations amongst peers.”