Partners in STEAM

Preparing today’s students to enter the workforce is no easy task, especially as our understanding of the future of work is evolving at a rapid clip, and in some ways has come full circle in the past 20 years. When school districts first began to embrace technology, it was often at the expense of trade programs like woodshop and metal shop. More recently, however, educators have recognized the many benefits of combining technology with Career and Technical Education as part of their STEAM education initiatives. Moreover, STEAM education can be greatly enhanced through partnerships with local industry.

Led by Superintendent A. Katrise Perera, we have embraced this type of integrated approach at Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon. In our development of leading-edge STEAM programming, a district bond-funded initiative, one of our main goals is to promote participation by historically underserved and underrepresented groups. The new STEAM programming is part of an overall emerging framework for pathways to career success. The framework will allow us to align our STEAM efforts under an umbrella of initiatives, which help guide our students from preschool to postsecondary as they prepare to enter the workforce.

After teaching math and science for 23 years, I leapt at the opportunity to help spearhead this effort by becoming the district’s first dedicated middle school STEAM elective teacher. In this new role, I was given the opportunity to design an entire interdisciplinary program from scratch. Initially funded by a 21st-century grant from the Oregon Department of Education, our pilot STEAM program at Clear Creek Middle School began in 2016 as a partnership with the Center for Advanced Learning, our district’s CTE-focused charter school. This partnership provided an infusion of technology, resources, professional learning and program development.

Expanding access to STEAM

To promote participation across student groups, we’ve developed a three-pronged approach that includes robust elective courses, afterschool programming and even a new, mobile STEAM initiative.

Robust electives. In our STEAM course, students learn the Engineer-Design Model and participate in a variety of manufacturing, electronics, coding, digital design and robotics projects. They use programs such as Sketchup on tablets and computers to create and modify designs, as well as access a wide variety of online tools including Scratch to learn and practice coding, which they also apply in robotics using Makeblock mBots. In every one of these activities, students hone their communication skills as they brainstorm and prototype in collaborative learning groups.

After school and extracurricular opportunities. We’ve expanded students’ exposure to STEAM learning by adding an afterschool program where students work to identify a need-based problem that we can use STEAM tools and skills to solve. Also, to provide students with an authentic audience and purpose, we’ve supported their participation in The Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Challenge for the past three years. The first year, we partnered with The Lambert House in Portland to provide adaptive learning and skill development activities for adults with Alzheimer's and other cognitive and physical limitations. Last year, students developed a project called Lifehatch which combined manufacturing, coding and electrical engineering to provide an escape and means of communication for victims of natural disasters who are trapped in their residences.

A new initiative: taking STEAM on the road. This year, we have been working on a concept called the Tomorrow Bus, a project aimed at supporting STEAM and project-based learning across the district and the greater community. After conducting research, students began planning for specific technology, resources and projects the Tomorrow Bus will make available as a mobile classroom during, after, and outside of school time. Based on the resources they identified, students made recommendations for the bus’s appearance, design and internal layout.

Our district transportation provider, First Student, has donated a bus we can adapt to achieve this vision. Local business partners have committed to assisting in the overhaul of the interior and exterior of the bus, and we are currently seeking industry partners to create classroom kits that can be used to increase STEAM instruction and experiences for students that link to CTE career pathways in Oregon. We have also invited our after-school partners to the table to plan for offering these opportunities during vacations, weekends and in the summer in neighborhoods and apartment complexes where students might not have access to transportation to get to summer camps.

4 insights for STEAM teachers

While building these new STEAM programs and developing new opportunities for students, we have tried out a number of strategies, some more successful than others. Here are my key takeaways from this experience: 

  1. Make well-considered decisions. While it may be tempting, it’s best not to jump on the hottest trends without very careful consideration. I see 200 students in my STEAM courses every day, so offering something like 3D printing, for example, to that many students, and being successful, is both challenging and complicated. Instead, we make it a standard practice to thoroughly investigate the technology and curriculum we want to use so we don’t end up spending too much of our budget on any one expensive tool or resource that may not be used at full capacity.
  2. Learn alongside industry partners. One way to significantly enhance STEAM programs and help students visualize a career pathway for themselves is to foster meaningful partnerships with local businesses. For instance, our partnership with Advanced Metal and Wire Products, a local fabrication company, played an important role in our success with the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition in 2018. The company not only invited students to tour their shop and learn about the tools they use and the products they create but also helped them achieve their vision by using student designs to build the frame of the escape hatch for flood victims to access their roofs.
  3. Keep growing. The opportunity to take on and shape the newly created role of STEAM teacher and develop brand-new programs has proven to be incredibly invigorating. I encourage teachers to seize these types of opportunities when they come along. As educators, our energy level and passion are, quite simply, infectious and can inspire students who may not have otherwise been interested in pursuing STEAM to plunge in and participate. 
  4. Be willing to fail. STEAM teachers should expect to fail and fail often. While we have certainly encountered a number of obstacles and setbacks in the past couple of years, we have also experienced a number of notable successes, both for our students and for the school. For example, our success at the state level, and as national finalists in the Samsung competition helped fund the purchase of nearly 200 Chromebooks and other technology. As a result, Clear Creek will be the first middle school in the district to offer a one-to-one digital learning environment starting next year.

The next chapter

In the next several years, we will align with our district-wide Preschool-2-Postsecondary Pathways to Career Success initiative. This initiative will provide the support necessary to continue to expand our partnerships with local industry and create meaningful learning experiences for our students. Many new businesses are moving to our area and there are more jobs than applicants in the trades. As part of our efforts, we need to be flexible about providing students access to post-secondary options that don’t necessarily require a four-year university degree. At the same time, the framework will help us to expand the model for STEAM programming at Clear Creek to all middle schools in the district. I anticipate that students from all five schools will gain valuable engineering design skills they can apply in their chosen career paths.

Tom Erickson is a veteran math and science teacher who is in his third year as the STEAM elective teacher at Clear Creek Middle school in Gresham, Ore. He is married to a kindergarten teacher and is the father of two boys. When not at work, he enjoys attending his son’s water polo tournaments and spending time outside. Connect with Tom on Twitter @ericksontom2.

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