STEAM is Intimidating!

I’m just going to start with an unsubstantiated statement: STEAM/ STEM is used more by marketers than teachers. what they hope you don’t notice is that this label is usually just slapped on the bundled gee gaw of simple experiments that are relatively unchanged in the last 70 years.

STEM club is a subscription to buzzwords

I am the STEAM coordinator for my school, and it can be challenging to find, develop, or even buy curriculum for my students to learn with. I generally eschew kits because I can’t burn through supplies like that, and I need curriculum that supports genuine collaboration. It is hard to collaborate if you have all been assigned to do the exact same thing.

As the “STEAM guy” at my school I make sure to wear a lab coat sometimes, but mostly I worry about getting enough of each piece in my lesson sequences. I worry that I am skimping on the M, maybe there isn’t enough E, will they even remember the S? There are a bunch of targets to hit. There are no lack of standards. I find the NGSS to be a very useful guide in broad strokes, but sometimes I just need a field guide to making bubble solution in 5 gallon batches.

I don’t worry that much about the A and the T, but that’s me. I’m grateful I spent some time as a technology teacher and we learn the tools as we go. I would say half of tech, if not more is really literacy instruction. “Did you read the box on your screen? What is it asking you? What do you think you should do? Did it work?” or “You want to add a project, is there a symbol on the screen that might let you ADD a project?” and Art? well art is what keeps us all interested in whatever it is we are making. I think the Art often disappears into the process as much as the Tech.

So here I am with the NGSS standards, my knowledge, my shortcomings, and my anxieties trying to build something that feels like joyful, engaged learning.  

I read Seymor Papert and while he was unwinding the tale of his own love for gears and how it made him learn differently I was thinking “crud, I never really got the whole gears thing.”  I liked what gears did. I serviced the gears on my bicycle. I did not find them an object of wonder and I have never been comfortable free designing with them. Thankfully the internet loves gears and some great resources exist.

I have been trying to design bigger things for the 5th grade to do. I want them building more and I want them designing and rebuilding as needed. We had some success with the physical programming challenge the “Fun House Build” and I wanted to start right away on another related build, so I developed the Enchanted Toy Shop. This will be an automata / paperMech build using cams, gears, axles, and linkages. I am working on my own vocab as I help the kids use the correct names for the rack and pinion, or the spur gear.

I don’t know that I had seen the PaperMech site before Jon Sameulson shared it recently via twitter. I wanted to fire up the kids imaginations before they got building, so I found a couple other videos and resources. The MAKE page and the video were great and the kids were genuinely interested.  I quickly put together a Google Site page for the assignment. I embedded the 6 slide guide deck I gave them each. At this point the work is individual because I am hoping to get a whole bunch of these automated toy contraptions to have on display. Of course this could end up looking like the stuff of nightmares, but when is that not the case. Am I right?

Have you tried Ryan Jenkin's automata? I linked to the exploritorium workshop on the class page. I think it is going to take us 4 weeks (it is all we have!) to get this together! I will post progress on my instagram and blog it again at the end.

What are you making?

About the author, Sam

Sam is Makerspace coordinator at Echo Horizon School, the nicest little school on Los Angeles' West Side. In the classroom since '02 Sam has taught grades PreK-12. Every lesson is a writing lesson.

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