What Is STEM and, What is STEAM?
A new model for teaching
A very talented teacher, Camille Jones, in Washington takes a different approach in her teaching of these subjects in an elementary school according to the Gates Notes website. Instead of having just one classroom of students, she sees all the children in the school much like a librarian or gym teacher.
The students come into the lab which is equipped with many different construction materials for building structures. One challenge that she introduces to the students is bridge building, a task that involves engineering. Students may select any of the materials to accomplish this task. They work in groups to build on their collaboration skills. She moves throughout the room engaging them in conversation to learn about what they are doing and how they approach the problem-solving task.
She scours the internet for exciting challenges and problem-solving situations. What she is looking for are lessons that involve deep thinking, but the milieu for this thinking is very simple but demonstrative of the underlying mathematical or scientific thinking. Teachers can locate lessons from science museums or center, and from sites that share best practices.
The weight-bearing challenge
From the Museum of Science in Boston, is the Engineering is Elementary program. The teacher uses this lesson about weight bearing as is described in Gates Notes here... The following example illustrates how many of her challenges are being managed.
Setting up the challenge
She uses materials to simulate to simulate a structure. In this case, she is working on a flat roof structure. Her materials are 4 pillars made of rolls of paper and 1 piece of paper which she places on the pillars as a roof of a structure. Then she sets up the problem-solving situation in the terms with which kids are familiar. Suppose this is your school, and this penny is a soccer ball. What happens when I put the penny on the roof?
The students notice and verbalize that that the paper bows a little. Keeping in the mode of the situation, she adds another penny saying this is the custodian going onto the roof to get the ball. And then she asks the question do you notice anything? She does not comment or praise the child but just continues with adding pennies. She may set a challenge by asking the child to predict how many pennies are needed to collapse the roof in their opinion. The experiment is continued until the roof collapses. All take note of the number of pennies it held.
Working on the problem of weight-bearing
At this point, she challenges the child to strengthen the roof with the materials that are available: sheets of paper and paper columns Hence the engineering problem is set. The children work on solving the problem in pairs or small groups with their own set of materials. Near the end of her session, all of the children gather together to share how they solved the problem. The solutions that are most successful (hold the most pennies) are discussed, and the children theorize why they worked so well.
What skills are the children learning in this example?
They are learning to meet challenges in their own way with the materials available to them. In collaborating with a partner, they learn to verbalize their ideas, to listen and accept ideas of others. In the final discussion time, they learn that there are many ways to solve the problem. One challenge has many solutions.
They also gain a deeper understanding of weight bearing through their experimentation and viewing of other people's solutions. They may even be surprised at who is the smartest peer in the room. Often the most talented child in solving these problems is not the best traditional student in the room. They are also learning that the teacher does not have the answers. This is a deliberate but different role of the teacher. She asks questions and provides no answers. The answers come from the experimentation and their own particular solutions and of course in sharing ideas on a more global scale.
So Why isn't this happening everywhere?
Some academics view that this approach is suitable for older students only. Other issues are that there are very few curriculum designers that take or are allowed to take this approach. Parents may not understand the benefits of this environment because it is difficult to parse out what their child accomplished. There is a not a test and demonstrate the "skills learned" situation. The success of the endeavor is a synergy of the challenge that is presented, the materials that are used and the success of the partnership. Doesn't this approach sound like the real world?