Roundtable: STEAM powered

As we prepare our children for a rapidly evolving employment market and a tech-filled future, STEAM is seen by many as the best educational model. But how much does it build on its STEM predecessor – and how suited is it to a world quickly embracing remote learning? Steve Wright asks the experts


Ricky Ye – CEO, DFRobot

Joslyn Adcock – Senior marketing manager, LEGO Education

Leon Lindblad – Director, CFA Ltd (Microsoft Authorised Refurbisher)

Jade Parkinson-Hill – Founder, The STEAM School

Cliodhna Ryan – Head of education, Ubongo

Q. What are the benefits of STEAM, when compared to STEM education or other learning methods?

Jade Parkinson-Hill: The STEAM education model is viewed by educators across the globe as the most appropriate way to equip students with 21st-century skills. Rather than viewing the five subject areas in isolation, the model advocates a holistic, project-based learning approach which allows students to develop their creativity, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Cliodhna Ryan: The arts are a highly beneficial addition to STEM. While STEM focuses on scientific concepts, STEAM uses the creative process to explore these concepts through a problem-solving lens, thus closely mirroring the way in which kids encounter these problems in real life. STEAM builds skills in creativity, critical-thinking and problem-solving, to name but a few. These skills will be (and already are) essential for young people to navigate a rapidly changing world.

Ricky Ye: STEM learning has become essential in today’s curriculum, helping young people to develop key skills which will prepare them for the fast-paced digital future. Of course, living and working in our modern society also requires a broader skillset, and we should encourage students to be creative, to think independently and critically about a problem, and be open to experimentation in order to find the best solutions.

There is often a misconception that students cannot be interested in both STEM and the arts – that it must be one or the other. In reality, nurturing skills from both disciplines in harmony will help students better achieve across these subjects and, ultimately, fulfil their potential.
A student can learn about the principles of artificial intelligence (AI), for instance, in a textbook. However, a more effective and engaging method would be getting the student to build their own automated robotic car in the classroom. The student can take ownership of the project and get creative with designing and building the car, while enriching their understanding of complex AI concepts. The power of STEAM lies in helping students grow their understanding of both STEM and arts-based subjects, as well as to appreciate how the two intersect.

Joslyn Adcock: Children hold the key to a brighter future, and therefore we must inspire and motivate them to become creative thinkers, able to uncover solutions to the challenges we face as a society. While STEM learning has long been on the agenda, these subjects cannot be taught in isolation. Introducing the power of the arts only enhances lessons, encouraging students to become more imaginative, inventive and artistic thinkers.

STEAM learning allows any environment – classroom, home or learning centre – to transform into a space where children have the freedom and flexibility to use a wide range of resources and tools – from robotics and coding bricks to pipe cleaners and tissue paper – to build all kinds of creations.

What makes this way of learning so effective is the fact that learning has no limits; teachers can tap into students’ passions and then look at how to use tools and technologies which engage and encourage them to use their imaginations.

Leon Lindblad: As an avid reader of Matthew Syed’s publications, I share his view that learning from mistakes is invaluable for growth and expanding knowledge and understanding. His profound insights on the diversity of thinking, as explained in his book Rebel Ideas, suggests that modern complex problems are better dealt with by teams of people who have a diversity of thinking.

Syed also observes that when first-generation immigrants arrive in a new country, they naturally bring with them a new diversity of thinking that is simply not possible if you only live and stay in the same place all your life. This is why higher education is so important – not merely to teach people a subject specialism, but also to teach them to be a well-adjusted citizen who can think around problems.
For me, this is why STEAM is more profound than STEM. Introducing some artistry to engineering, maths and technology provides students with a new, more diverse way of thinking.

Q. Do you think that a move from STEM towards STEAM represents a better preparation, for our pupils, for the complex 21st-century job market?

JPH: There is much debate about the future of work and how we should best prepare young people to thrive in a world where technological innovation is so rapid, disrupting not only how we work but how we live.

The ‘future’ is already here, with tech giants and innovative startups offering fantastic opportunities for young people to develop their skills and create portfolio careers.

Our work with tech companies has highlighted the fact that small startups and tech giants want to recruit young people who are self-directed learners, who can articulate how they have explored their passions, and can embrace a growth mindset and global values. STEAM education is the most appropriate model to help young people develop these skills and attributes.

CR: We already know that many kids will go on to work in jobs that do not even exist yet. Therefore, it’s not the specific knowledge that they learn in school that will prepare them for this, but the skills they acquire along the way. Given the highly changing nature of how we work, the line between arts and technology is becoming increasingly blurred, with many technical careers requiring creativity and the ability to think outside the box.

Here at Ubongo, our team uses a STEAM approach, applying creative problem-solving techniques to every step of our work – from writers drafting scripts about science and engineering, to animators bringing stories to life using advanced software.

That said, it can be argued that the arts have always had a place in STEM – most innovations (including Ubongo Kids!) come from somebody applying a creative lens to an existing problem.

RY: From graphic designer to aerospace engineer, most jobs today require a blend of technical and creative skills. For example, take the process of creating an AI-powered robot. The engineer will need to have coding and robotics knowledge, but also have the creativity, empathy and design-thinking approach to program the robot’s ethics and create appealing visuals. STEAM not only equips children with wide-ranging skills, it shows them that they can pursue their passions in both disciplines. By understanding how the arts intersect with science, technology, engineering and maths, students become more flexible and innovative thinkers – and, therefore, more employable.

The jobs market is evolving rapidly – there will be careers available in the next five years that do not even exist now. STEAM learning encourages children to be creative and engage laterally with tasks: skills which will serve them well in the changing workplace and beyond.

JA: While the arts and STEM can work as separate entities, there is greater impact on teaching and learning if they are taught in unison – especially when preparing students for the 21st-century job market.

So many of today’s jobs include elements of STEAM, such as architecture, animation, mechanical engineering and app and graphic design, and this will only evolve further by the time students enter the market. Therefore, it’s vital that what we teach now exposes students to the real-world applications of what they are learning. Making these connections from an early age will help students recognise the purpose of what they’re being taught, and gain a deeper understanding of the subjects they need to immerse themselves in for their desired careers.
Introducing the arts as part of this only encourages students to get creative, unearthing weird and wonderful solutions that may make a positive impact on the world.

LL: STEAM will undoubtedly better prepare students for their future career path. It is those creative innovators who are adept at problem-solving who will be able to successfully navigate their way through challenges and overcome setbacks.

Life as it used to be, where people left school and stayed in the same job until retirement, no longer exists. We are facing environmental and social challenges that will increasingly impact the workplace.

The people who will thrive will be the agile thinkers, with creative ways of approaching situations.

The current global pandemic is testament to that. Business owners who are willing to take new approaches to their existing business, to still reach their customers in a time of uncertainty, are really showing what remarkable things can be achieved when a creative mindset is applied.
With enough dedication, time and effort, a traditional academic discipline can be learned, but this type of knowledge is only useful to a point.

It’s in the creative applications and adaptations, using that foundation of technical knowledge, that we really see breakthroughs in development and growth.

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic, and its requirements for remote/asynchronous learning, impacted STEAM education and its students?

RY: With millions of children across the world now learning remotely, STEAM has become a fantastic way for students to continue their education whilst having fun at home. STEAM-based project kits allow children to build up their AI, science or robotics knowledge at home, and enjoy the satisfaction of making something themselves, such as designing a new emoji on the computer or discovering what material is best to keep a coffee cup warm.

While remote learning makes it harder for students to collaborate on a STEAM project, it enables pupils to develop their independent learning skills – and even get their parents involved. Indeed, one of our customers has told us that quarantine education provides a great opportunity for parent-and-child time.

Her six-year-old daughter is a fan of LEGO-style block building, and being at home meant they could build various LEGO projects together. While her daughter was naturally shy at school, she felt more at ease and had the chance to learn to make her own decisions when building a STEAM-based project at home.

CR: In many countries in Africa, where we work, we have seen that remote learning initiatives are often designed to mirror the traditional classroom. In most education systems in the countries where we work, there is little crossover between subjects. This, and a high focus on examinations, gives STEAM a low priority in the traditional classroom. Poor access to remote technologies is also a huge barrier in many areas.

To combat this, we at Ubongo have been working to provide STEAM education to students through our creative, musical content – via TV, radio, SMS and Interactive Voice Response.

JA: The pandemic has undoubtedly caused disruption across the education sector. However, while the majority of teachers and students aren’t able to share the same physical space, there is still an opportunity for students to continue engaging in STEAM learning.

Students learn best when they can directly interact with resources and experience things first-hand.

When they’re given the freedom to work independently to discover solutions, they in turn feel more motivated and will gain and retain valuable knowledge.

Of course, some physical resources won’t be accessible from home, but this is where the arts become invaluable to the continuation of learning and discovery – opening up a platform for children to take learning into their own hands and use their creativity to find alternative methods, resources and materials.

LL: This pandemic has taught us that we weren’t ready yet. While teachers have done an amazing job of embracing teaching online, we were not ready with the necessary infrastructure to make this as successful as it needs to be. Underprivileged children without access to the internet or a computer have been completely cut off from the education they are entitled to receive.

This needs to change. The COVID-19 mortality rate, while extremely tough on the whole world, is in some respects a necessary wake-up call, showing us that we are ill-prepared for embracing remote learning as a nation.

We need to learn these crucial lessons now, so that we are prepared should anything of this nature ever happen again. Every child needs access to the internet and to a device so that they can continue learning. I hope that we learn from this and make positive changes for our people and the planet.

While remote learning makes it harder for students to collaborate on a STEAM project, it enables pupils to develop their independent learning skills – Ricky Ye

Q. Is STEAM well suited to asynchronous learning?

JPH: Thankfully, here at The STEAM School we were a little ahead of the curve. Our technology enables learners to work independently on self-directed projects and tasks, which are related to our weekly broadcasts with global experts. Many other STEAM education providers have adapted accordingly, hosting lessons online. Encouraging students to explore ideas, concepts and technology whilst at home is a perfect way for young people to embrace STEAM education during these times.

CR: Yes, STEAM is very well suited to asynchronous learning. For parents trying their best to support their kids’ learning at home, often while balancing their own work from home, STEAM activities provide an open-ended, inquiry-based approach that allows kids to work independently, experimenting with things in the home environment. At Ubongo, we mix science, technology, arts and story to help kids learn in an environment that mimics what they’ll face later on in life. By taking a lifelong-learning approach, building skills such as growth mindset, emotional intelligence and problem-solving, we ensure that kids stay learning whether they are at home or at school.

RY: STEAM education is well suited for asynchronous learning for two reasons; being at home gives students the freedom and extra time to learn at their own pace and revisit subject areas which they might have struggled with previously. Project-based STEAM lessons are ideal as pupils can work through the task individually, and the hands-on element helps students enrich their comprehension and retention of the topic. Since teachers cannot be physically present with their students, the ‘learning through play’ method ensures that pupils are still engaging with a broad range of subjects in a fun and creative way.

STEAM projects do not change much whether the lesson is conducted in school or asynchronously at home, making it well positioned to help ease the pressure on teachers. When compared to other subjects, STEAM projects allow for more detailed step-by-step tutorials, which students can follow along with minimal instruction at home. Teachers can then encourage students to discuss their work afterwards to ensure that they are maintaining progress.

JA: As previously mentioned, bringing the arts into STEM learning helps children to continue learning remotely, where previously this may have been more challenging. Students can incorporate whatever tools they have at their disposal – getting hands-on with fabrics, paper, bricks, cardboard, recycled materials, or even objects from outside.

Hands-on learning provides a medium for building ideas and models while practising important skills such as communication, collaboration, critical-thinking and creativity.

Giving them free reign can help encourage imagination and develop design creativity and aesthetic skills. Parents or teachers can then challenge students by asking questions such as “Why did you use that piece?”, “What decisions did you make?”, “Where did you run into challenges?” and, crucially, “How did you overcome those challenges?”

It’s also important to tie activities into real-world examples and situations, to further children’s understanding of topics and concepts. For example, can they build a theme park ride that operates at different speeds or levels, a shelter that provides protection for animals depending on their habitat, or even wearable or digital accessories that support different lifestyles.

All ages from pre-school to secondary (and beyond) can benefit from the open-ended and playful nature of STEAM learning, unlocking true learning potential by allowing students to approach problems from their own unique angle. Learning through doing allows students to take ownership of their education by independently exploring and discovering – all skills that will carry them through school and into adulthood.

LL: Yes, I believe STEAM is suited to students learning the same material at different times and in different locations. One great example of this is 3D printing, which combines science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics all in one. Providing a student has access to a printer, the internet and a laptop, PC or mobile device, 3D printing is definitely something that could be learnt, explored and enjoyed independently at home.

This might sound unobtainable when applying the current education mindset to 3D printing, where a school has one very expensive printer costing thousands of pounds, to be shared between a whole class or entire school population. However, we are importing mini personal 3D printers to sell to students for under £100 – a game changer for STEAM.

Empowering students with the right 3D design tools to take their ideas, create a design and then turn it into reality would bring so many positive learning outcomes, teaching children a variety of skills including effective planning, accurate measurement, properties of materials, understanding of 3D shapes, problem-solving and creative design. Devising real-life contexts, such as 3D printing a doorstop or something useful for the home, would give the learning purpose and meaning.

I think we are likely to see more interactive live broadcasting in the coming months, as education organisations adapt to a new normal – Jade Parkinson-Hill

Q. How has technology been used to enhance the delivery of STEAM education in schools, colleges, universities and MATs?

JPH: We have certainly seen an increasing number of new schools using The STEAM School, as well as increased engagement from our existing member schools. Organisations like STEM Learning have also launched live YouTube shows for young people. I think we are likely to see more interactive live broadcasting in the coming months, as education organisations adapt to a new normal.

CR: Here in Africa, many schools do not have access to technology. However, many teachers are finding innovative ways to deliver STEAM education in schools, despite such challenges. One example of this is Kenya’s Peter Tabichi, who was awarded the 2019 Global Teacher Prize for his promotion of STEAM amongst his pupils. Although the school had only one computer, Tabichi mentored his pupils to invent their own devices to submit to the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair. With increased access to technology, the potential is unlimited!

RY: During this pandemic, technology has been indispensable in enabling schools, colleges, universities, and MATs to continue reaching and engaging students remotely.

Take our own experience here at DF Robot as an example; technology makes it possible for us to deliver STEAM education both online and offline. With today’s communications technology, we are able to build an online platform for teachers to generate and share their STEAM-based lesson content – including project guidelines, lesson plans, tutorials, etc. The technology has also enabled us to deliver remote training sessions for STEAM teachers, ensuring that teachers do not miss out on their skills development whilst at home.

We have more access to exciting digital devices today than ever before, from 3D printers to laser-cutting machines and AI laboratories. As we look ahead to schools reopening, we might consider how these devices can be integrated to help students apply their STEAM learning and develop future-facing skills.

JA: Technology is truly embedded in our everyday lives and the world we live in. It’s therefore vital that this technology is incorporated within the arts and sciences curriculum, in order to emphasise the relevance of the arts in today’s society and job market.

Technology – largely in the form of coding and robotics resources – helps bring concepts to life.

For example, when talking about prosthetics, rather than simply showing pictures and explaining functionality, challenge students to think about someone who is missing a limb, and what they would do if they had to create a new function for that person.

Ask them to get creative and think about reinventing a hand. What would a chef, mechanic or even a student like them like to have, instead of a hand? Technology will then enable them not only to design their idea, but to build it and bring it to life using coding elements, sensors, motors and more. Getting hands-on will give them a deeper understanding of what they’re learning, while coding and robotics take it to the next level.

Technology not only helps us to fill the digital skills gap and better prepare our children for our evolving economy; it also encourages more freedom and flexibility for our future creators and designers.

LL: In the increasingly prevalent move to online learning and training modules, numerous large companies have gifted education software and hardware for free. However, I think we can do much better. Returning to Matthew Syed’s mantra, we will achieve the best outcomes when we work as a team, drawing on everyone’s diverse strengths combined.

Where we need to take this, for future progress, is to somehow find a reliable way of giving better access to the internet and computers to all students, not just those who have the financial capability to access it. No child should be excluded from accessing educational resources.

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