Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I'm so excited to introduce Eliot Kersgaard from Myra Makes as my guest blogger this week! I've been interested in STEAM for a long time, but do not feel at all equipped at this point to write about it. I'm lucky to have connected with Eliot, a STEAM rockstar, who was kind enough to share his thoughts and expertise with us.
Eliot Kersgaard is the cofounder and director of Myra Makes. He was born and raised in Colorado and has a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Colorado. He has experience in nonprofit management, urban agriculture, STEAM education, physics, metaphysics, design thinking, permaculture and multimedia art.
5 Ways STEAM Can Improve Learning Outcomes
STEAM is one of the new buzzwords on the block in the experiential education movement. But what does it mean, and why should we care?
In most circles, STEAM education is a modification to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), which includes the A for the Arts. Some organizations, like Maker Bolder in Colorado, switch out a couple of the STEM letters and call STEAM Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts and Making. To avoid confusion, we’ll think about STEAM in this article as the traditional STEM subjects plus the Arts.
The idea behind STEM and STEAM is not merely that these subjects are important, but that they are best taught together, as complementary subjects. And while STEM might conjure a picture of kids making robots or learning to code, the aim isn’t about getting more kids to build robots and make video games. And adding the “A” isn’t about making those robots prettier. The inclusion of Arts in the mix is a recognition that creative, divergent, and aesthetic thinking are key ingredients to success, innovation, and communication in STEM and life in general. The fundamental objective of STEAM in my mind is to help create a more technically literate society that better understands how science works and is able to think creatively to adapt to these changes and leverage them for the best.
STEAM is part of a growing movement of integrated education, and most in the STEAM movement also recognize the importance of other educational philosophies and tools into their approaches. These include problem-based learning, making, experiential learning, nature-based education, and social-emotional learning. Just as STEAM subjects are strengthened when considered together, these lenses and tools are strengthened when combined.
A collaborative brainstorming session focused on generating ideas to make a difference in our communities.
STEAM education is one way to frame learning during an impact-oriented project.
STEAM, along with other educational philosophies in the dialogue today, can seem intimidating to teachers, kids, and parents because it seems to demand more of everyone involved. This uncertainty and fear is valid, and the STEAM approach is fundamentally different from the educational system that has been developed in the West since the mid 1800’s. However, before that time, STEAM, Making, and problem-based learning, while not called by these names, were the standard for learning and learning environments. Prior to the industrial revolution, it was common for thought leaders in many disciplines to cross disciplinary bridges. Think Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Hypatia. In many ways, the STEAM and aligned movements are a rekindling of how education has been conducted for most of human civilization.
OK, but what does STEAM education actually look like? I’ll explain through an example of a STEAM project. Imagine that a homeschool family has decided to construct a small greenhouse and outdoor garden. They decide to use this project as a STEAM learning opportunity. The project is broken into five different elements, one for each of the STEAM letters. Note that while the project described is a lengthy project, STEAM learning can take place over shorter times and with less planning as well. See Myra Makes (and a future post here!) for some ideas of quick STEAM activities to do at home.
A garden project, real or imagined, can introduce STEAM topics (pictured: Journey to Cloud City by Myra Makes)
For science, the students will study garden and greenhouse ecology to decide what species to include and what they will need to thrive. For technology, the students will create automated systems of light, heat and water to ensure everything runs smoothly and to reduce the workload during operation. For engineering, the students will design and build the infrastructure needed. For art, the students will design the overall arrangement of all of the elements, create a mural on the side of the garden beds to represent their visions for the project, and write a summary of the project so others can learn from the experience. Finally, for math, the students will create a budget for the project and decide on the various purchases needed. The key factor that makes this project a STEAM project is that learning in one of the areas is connected to learning in all of the other areas. The technology element draws from biology to determine the appropriate light and water requirements for the plants. The engineering element must consider the technology that will be included as well as the ecology. The artistic element brings all of the other elements together to determine how to represent the project to the outside world and create an overarching design.
The results are improved learning outcomes across the board, beginning with:
Number Five: Increasing content relevance
In work, entrepreneurial, or home contexts, the STEAM fields rarely live in isolation from one another. The construction of a garden and greenhouse is one example of how they are likely to be found together. By teaching these subjects together, we are able to more closely mimic how students are likely to encounter them later in life. This strengthens the mental pathways that connect these subjects so that students will be better equipped to understand, analyze and design in situations they will encounter later in life. This increased relevance is the foundation for the other improvements in learning outcomes coming later on this list.
Number Four: Engaging a greater diversity of learners
In the normalized academic structure of having each subject taught separately, students can easily become alienated from specific subjects. Students can lose interest in a class and have a difficult time becoming engaged again as the content grows more difficult and they struggle to play catch-up. If a student is disengaged in math, it is unlikely that more difficult math in the context of another math class will be a gateway to interest. On the other hand, teaching multiple subjects together provides more avenues for learners to become interested in the material. If math is taught alongside art or biology, there are now routes for students interested in art or biology to become interested in math as well.
Number Three: Building creative, problem-solving and design skills
While it is true that careers in science and technology are becoming more plentiful, the most sought-after skills in the workforce are more abstract: problem-solving and creativity. These skills are fundamentally a blend between artistic thinking and scientific thinking. Artistic thinking is divergent, on-the-fly thinking, identifying many approaches to a problem, and connecting disparate elements together. Scientific thinking emphasizes analysis, optimization, and experimentation. As a simplification, the arts are the beginning, highly creative stages of a design process, while the sciences are later stages of analysis and optimization. By teaching them together, problem solving and design are embedded throughout the curriculum.
Problem-solving games can encourage kids to draw on their knowledge of STEAM subjects
to bring their imaginations to life (pictured: Inventure by Myra Makes (prototype))
Number Two: Increasing learner agency
As discussed in our Number Four, STEAM education increases the number of pathways to learning subject material. By mixing and matching subject matter, there are many entry points to the material and there are many ways of thinking about it. Just as this allows STEAM to engage a more diverse array of learners, it allows learners to explore their own personal learning style, connect the subject matter with their interests, and find new learning approaches that work best for them. These combine to increase the agency, or freedom, of a learner. This deepened agency is key to fostering lifelong learning, one of the fundamental aims of integrated education.
Number One: Improving content mastery
While each element on this list is valuable in itself, they also work together to increase students’ content mastery. In other words, their testable outcomes will improve. This is an emergent, almost accidental result of engaging more learners, increasing content relevance, and increasing learner agency.
About Myra Makes:
Myra Makes is a grassroots startup based in Colorado. We believe that every person has the innate capacity to contribute to a brighter future for all while meeting their needs and developing their passions. Our mission is to create a more playful and just society by enriching the lives of kids, teachers and families. To achieve this, we create books, games, and programs to engage the whole child in creative pursuits.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.