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STEAM from the gridiron

When STEAM and football come together, learning sticks. Five tips from a winning program.

6 min read


STEAM from the gridiron

Photo courtesy of 49ers STEAM Education

What happens when students experience science, technology, engineering, arts and math through lessons about football?

Practical learning, says Jesse Lovejoy, director of STEAM education and the San Francisco 49ers Museum. “Sports are generally understood and compelling,” says Lovejoy. “They also happen to be a great lens through which to examine the subjects of STEAM or any other subject really.”

Lovejoy coordinates the 49ers STEAM education program, launched in 2014 at Levi’s Stadium. The initiative, part of the 49ers Foundation that serves K-8 students in Bay Area schools, aims to provide students with a real-world look at STEAM using the concepts of football.

I spoke with Lovejoy about what it takes to capture students’ interest and open their eyes to the possibilities in STEAM fields. Here are some of his top tips:

Make it relatable. Sports make sense to students, even to those who are not athletes, says Lovejoy. “What we have in the game of football is this really simple and approachable idea,” he says. “Sports — whether kids like to play basketball, baseball, football or soccer, field hockey, swim or run — they know what they are. They understand what it is.”

More than half — 56% — of the students who attend the 49ers program come from Title 1 schools, according to reporting from Forbes. Many are young athletes for whom sports is their first language. Program activities — such as math exercises around player stats — help connect STEAM concepts to students’ interests. The goal is to expose students to new opportunities that let them see how their passions connect to real life, says Lovejoy.

“Our mission [for] using this platform [is] as a way to change the way that kids perceive, relate to and want to explore these subjects,” he says. “If we can reach these kids and be that moment of inspiration for them…[we want] to show them this is real life — these are things you can approach through things that you love.”

Speak about the job. It’s time to redefine STEAM and help students understand it’s not an “abstract concept that lives in a lab and wears a set of daisy glasses,” says Lovejoy.

“Instead of speaking about the subject, speak about the job,” he says. During their visit, students learn about different jobs at the stadium, including engineers, chefs, accountants, data analysts, football players and coaches, and how the work involved relates to STEAM. Lovejoy says the key is discussing these functions in practical terms students understand.

“When we’re teaching engineering, I’ll go in a classroom and tell a kid, ‘Hand me something,'” he says. He explains how ordinary objects such as paper, pens or shoes are engineered and how that process helps continually improve those objects. Students also get to see how football helmets are built and how they have evolved over the years.

“And that whole idea is something kids are not usually presented with when it comes to the concept of engineering,” Lovejoy says. “Making something better, making anything better.”

Let them get their hands dirty. Hands-on activities are “very powerful for a child in terms of inspiring creativity and collaboration and critical thinking,” says Lovejoy. He advises educators not to presume that students know what it means to be creative.

“You have to engage young people at a very primal and practical level to inspire creativity,” says Lovejoy. “In some cases, you even have to tell them what it looks like and model it for them. I think they hear this word and think, ‘Does this mean I draw something? What does this mean?’ That’s the first part.”

The 49ers program uses technologies such as simulation and touch screens to deliver learning content but also places great emphasis on fostering creativity through project-based learning and tactile experiences. Activities such as creating face masks from straws and fitting them to helmets or using K’nex and wooden blocks to build a stadium help reinforce STEAM concepts, nudge students out of their comfort zones and let them develop creative muscles, says Lovejoy.

“For us, it’s about putting things in the hands of young people, with the right information, and asking them to build something,” says Lovejoy. “And intentionally doing that in a real-world environment and not in a digital environment. We want them to hold, touch and build. That, for us, has been very powerful.”

Use process to teach job skills. Process is a valuable way to demonstrate practical application of STEAM concepts, says Lovejoy. Lessons about engineering begin by walking students through the steps of their day – from waking up to taking the bus to school — so they can see how their activities connect.

“That is what’s called a process,” says Lovejoy. “Going through a process is what every single person does at their job every single day. Does that mean you’re a scientist or mathematician? Not necessarily. But it means that you’re employing the same principles that those people employ.”

The exercise helps students identify the job skills needed for various STEAM-related careers. “When you start to think about the kinds of skills required to develop the capacity to become an electrician, to fix heating and ventilation and air conditioner equipment, these things are STEAM careers,” says Lovejoy. “I think that’s the start [of] getting out of this concept of STEAM as this really high-level concept for kids and breaking it down to relatable terms and occupations.”

Fuel teacher enthusiasm for STEAM. The linchpin to a successful STEAM program is a committed, enthusiastic educator, says Lovejoy. To this end, the 49ers organization offers professional development to all teachers who participate in the STEAM education program. The half-day training sessions emphasize project-based learning and STEAM integration. All teachers return to their classrooms armed with lesson plans and access to additional resources. Lovejoy says 250 educators participated in the program last year.

“The most important part is the engagement, instruction, motivation and guidance of educators who care,” says Lovejoy. “You cannot discount the importance of somebody in that room [who] will not let young people get away with giving mediocre effort — [who] is not going to allow them to bail on the experience.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the editor of SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.