In a few weeks my colleague, Josh, and I will be presenting “STEAM is not a big enough tent” at the Academic Learning Transformation Festival (ALTfest). We wrote the following post for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website. It provides a good overview of our upcoming talk at ALTfest.
We started a STEAM program, and three years later, we’ve outgrown the acronym.
It began when a group of upper school students approached a physics teacher about creating an advanced physics group tutorial. The physics teacher recruited a computer science teacher and the tutorial became robotics. The computer science teacher enlisted the support of a media and design teacher and the program became STEAM. By the time September arrived, our students, teachers, and school began a three year trajectory we did not anticipate.
Start with design: The hated classroom chair. We asked students to redesign them. They did. They couldn’t stop. They redesigned the classroom. Then they redesigned the school.
Don’t forget robots: A mission to land a robot from the roof, drive itself across the field, and plant a flag. Fortunately the dead-weight-falling, spear-launching machine didn’t hurt anyone. It also didn’t sustain the landing, drive itself, or plant a flag. We learned a lot.
Add the “A”: A musical staircase played Carol of the Bells. Each stair played a different instrumental part of our arrangement. The whole school remixed a holiday classic in the lobby.
Build a team, build a company: An asynchronous brainstorming app won national recognition. Even after graduating, the students developed their work into a business plan.
Make media, tell stories: A student’s film received a screening at the White House. The special effects were impressive. The story it told of the future of learning was more so.
Raise the barn and cultivate a community: Then we opened a makerspace. An open door invited Literature classes to study metaphors by building physical representations of them, and students to drop in to make what they wanted, when they wanted.
And that’s how we broke the acronym. Our STEAM program, which was defined by limited academic disciplines, became a makerspace open to all academic constituencies. How can we open ourselves to even more learners?
As a place, the makerspace is in some ways like the library: it’s not just a resource closet but a shared learning resource for the community. The makerspace is not about any single academic discipline or even a defined set of disciplines. The makerspace embraces the building of knowledge in any discipline or on any topic through the construction of shareable artifacts, both physical and virtual.
Instead of disciplines, the pedagogy of the makerspace is centered on values. Here are our top three:
Query: Do students feel valued for the talents they bear, empowered to take intellectual risks, and capable of determining on their own when “good” is “good enough”?
For example…we support pluralism: of cognitive approaches, of modalities, of ways to demonstrate mastery. Projects that are rigidly linear and/or have one expected “correct” outcome dismiss the unique gifts each individual student brings to the makerspace.
Query: Does this project ring true with students’ aspirations, their lived experiences, or the reality of the communities in which they may some day participate?
For example…we like to support an ongoing number of opportunities for students to iterate and improve their work. Some projects continue long after the class deadline passes.
Query: Do students have opportunities to share their work, to see that what they produce can be worthy of other people’s time and attention, or to examine the objects of their learning from another person’s perspective?
For example…we support sharing work online, offline, on campus, off campus, on a stage, or in the lobby. The magic of the makerspace does not come from the tools in the room; insteadthe learning theory that guides makerspaces is founded upon the unique power of learning through creating shareable work.
Where do we go from here? We like to plan projects collaboratively because we are continually learning about how to create successful experiences in the makerspace. We invite faculty at our school to come to the makerspace with a class unit, a goal, or an open-ended interest in collaborating, and together we will cook up a project query, assessment options, and other resources to help each project be successful. We encourage those of you reading this post to do the same in this collaborative virtual space. Share your own projects, units, goals, and queries in the comments or in your own posts on the site, and let’s work together to build agency, authenticity, and audience into the work that we and our students do.