STEAM: Think outside the box

Article by David Wierenga
Mount Carmel College, Hobart TAS / 08 August 2019

If you visit Providence House at Mount Carmel College on a Wednesday afternoon, you will notice a few things immediately: the hum of excited voices, colourful piles of resources and tools spread out across any flat surface, and groups of students huddled together around projects they have designed and made – building, modifying, and creating. The atmosphere is focused and productive, driven by student inspiration, with teaching staff acting as mentors, providing feedback and distributing resources. In short, it is 21st century learning.

Mount Carmel College has a proud history of excellence in science and engineering challenges. The Year 6 STEAM program (Science Technology Engineering Arts Maths) seeks to both support and enhance this history, embedding the skills essential for success not just in school competitions but in the technologically-saturated, resource-conscious 21st century global community.

The STEAM program has been developed and refined by the Year 6 teaching team over the past three years and is built around open-ended, collaborative, multimodal tasks. The learning cycle includes time for planning, making, presenting and reflecting. All tasks work together to establish a strong foundation of essential, transferable skills. While students are engaged in tasks such as solving a pressing social or community problem, coding an educational game, or designing a model for an accessible play space, they are simultaneously developing their skills in design thinking, creativity and solution fluency, and the invention cycle; skills selected purposefully for both their future importance and strong basis in educational research. All tasks emphasise the importance of making, rather than consuming, and encourage the development of a maker mindset.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “STEAM [allows] you to think outside the box in many areas across the curriculum,” says Sienna A, aged 12, “I like how it encourages students to think, build and design structures!” For Emily, also aged 12, the benefits are both educational and collaborative: “I love doing STEAM because I like learning fun stuff and presenting things that I have learned with my group.” Sienna B, 12, sees the ongoing benefit of learning maker skills: “You get to make really cool things that will help you later in life.” One of the great strengths of the program is that students recognise its broader application to life outside of the classroom: “STEAM is [about] empowerment of the mind,” Imogen, 12, says, “and success in the future.”

STEAM is part of a worldwide movement. Joi Ito, Director of the Media Lab at MIT, the organisation responsible for the ideas behind Google Street View, the Kindle Reader, and Guitar Hero (among many more), describes his program this way: “Questioning is usually the role of the artists and the scientists. The designers and the engineers are the ones that usually try to just make things. What we are trying to do is to bring all of those together: arts, science, engineering and design.” The benefits of this approach are obvious, and can be seen in the STEAM program at Mount Carmel College.