Using STEAM to reverse teacher-directed mindsets
Marcos Navas
July 14, 2016

As a Title I district with 98% minority enrollment, educators and students at Union City School District in New Jersey have worked for more than two decades to reach a graduation rate that exceeds the national average.

While many have studied what was done to build a successful inner-city school district, my job is to push the boundaries of what we’re already doing to educate a future-ready student body.

Recently, STEAM education has moved to the top of our agenda. While the journey to infusing STEAM into daily lessons does have its challenges, I’ve witnessed changes in both teachers and students when they open their minds to new ideas. 

How does a Title I school district transform opportunities to enter an evolving workforce using STEAM curriculum?

Adopt a STEAM-based mindset

Integrating content isn’t a new idea. Integrating STEAM, on the other hand, can take educators into uncharted territory while they work to master “learning by doing.” Teachers are more apt to teach the way they were taught, which means roughly 80% of teachers typically use a teacher-directed approach while introducing one subject matter at a time.

The first step to reversing a teacher-directed approach is to change this mindset from the top down: Consider what the application of the lesson you’re teaching should be, and then build the steps that work toward that end goal.

At workshops, I often describe the process to building lessons as riding a bicycle backwards, where one must resist the habit of peddling forward. It’s easy to fall back into the same teaching patterns if you don’t stay focused on the end goal. At Union City, our overarching end goal is to make sure students truly understand the “why” to each concept they’re taught.

STEAM integration and finding the “why?”  

STEAM is not a separate subject or a set time in the schedule where students play with the variety of STEM kits available. It is the integration of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through a brand new curriculum or built into a current curriculum design. It allows students to apply STEAM principles to create innovative and practical solutions to real world problems.

At our P-3 STEAM School, teachers initially found searchable STEAM classroom activities on Pinterest or Google. Initially, they were excited by their finds. When asked to describe the “why” behind the activity or the content it supported, they had no response.  Struck by the gap between their lesson and their intended take-away led to a very important teaching moment: Teachers need to understand content standards, why they are teaching said content, and why it matters from a foundational learning perspective. You may find that changing this mind set comes more easily when creating courses for STEAM camps.

Take “learn by doing” outside of the classroom

With district support, my team and I have designed and run STEAM camps for the past three summers. The vision for the camps is to provide learners with exposure to the latest and greatest technologies, and more importantly, have them apply their knowledge and understanding to solve some real-world problems using that technology.

Using a design thinking philosophy, students are free to explore, tinker and create. STEAM camps have engendered an atmosphere where “out of the box” thinkers are celebrated for their innovative ideas.

For example, we introduced students to the Dremel 3D Idea Builder printer. Now we have applied 3D printing technology to build hydroponic systems to teach sustainability and introduce urban farming. In the coding course, students work with Raspberry Pi physical coding and computing. 

Seeing the impact

After experimenting with STEAM curriculum over the past three years, I’ve found it to yield some of my most rewarding experiences as an educator. I’m proud to be a part of moments when a student discovers a new way to express an idea. Especially for English-language learners and those with special needs, I’ve witnessed them take pride in finding autonomy in the classroom, igniting a true passion for learning.  

Marcos Navas (@mrnavas) is a K-12 technology facilitator at Union City School District in New Jersey and a Dremel Idea Builder Ambassador.

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