To STEAM or not to STEAM

The STEAM movement has been gaining momentum for several years now, but is it here to stay? Claire Kingston looks back at the highs and lows of 2018 and considers the future of STEAM in our classrooms and the wider world of edtech

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. The advent of new and emerging technologies and industries, including virtual and augmented reality, 3D print and manufacturing, IoT and AI, has highlighted a future skills gap. Many jobs are at risk of being automated and future generations must be equipped with a new skill set. Graham Brown-Martin, Chief Education & Product Officer at pi-top, said: “It’s not about content and information recall, which machines do much better than humans, rather it’s about skills, competences, collaboration and real-world problem-solving.”

It is this that has fuelled the growth of STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, maths), a transdisciplinary approach that addresses future challenges by teaching the next-generation core skills like collaborative problem-solving and creative and critical thinking. Eddie Kemsley, CEO at KidZania London, an interactive child-sized city where kids can ‘Learn by Doing’ said: “Jobs in real life are interdisciplinary and would rarely require the use of just one subject. For example, a video games developer needs imagination and creativity as well as excellent IT skills.” To support this, KidZania recently held a STEAM Week event for schools where activities included STEAM-themed world record challenges, and ‘hands-on’, design, build and test challenges.

However, in schools the national curriculum is dancing to a different tune and many believe it is no longer fit for purpose. Traditionally, the arts and sciences have been taught as separate subjects, but integration is now essential. Nick Corston, co-founder and CEO of STEAMCo – a social enterprise that runs STEAM days for schools – said: “For us STEAM isn’t about spelling STEM with an A but celebrating the power of creativity, tech and people to engage kids in learning, create careers and connect community.” After all, if the world of industry is transforming, the education system that supports it must also transform.

Outdated assessment

Despite key figures across the sectors campaigning for the core STEAM principles to be taught in schools, the movement has had little support from the Government. Brown-Martin at pi-top said: “A key obstacle [to STEAM] is our resistance to change and reliance on an education system that is largely driven by the measurement industry, that measures students ability to memorise a set of prescribed facts and procedures, to regurgitate within an arbitrary exam, that is typically conducted in silence and where students are not allowed to share their answers or ideas nor use any 21st-century technology within the examination room.” He likened this to learning to swim by reading a book, watching YouTube videos and then getting an A in a written test: “You wouldn’t be able to swim but you would have a good grade.”

The intense pressure placed on teachers to hit these targets means that even if teachers would like to include practical, project-based learning, they can’t. Jeramie Sutton, UK&I Midmarket and Education Sales Manager at HP, said: “The whole system needs to be reviewed, everything from how we design classrooms, to what and how we teach.” Frustratingly, this is not a belief held by key figures in education like Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, who questioned the motivation for practical science lessons at the Association for Science Education annual conference this year.

Brown-Martin at pi-top believes that “teaching hasn’t changed nearly enough,” (with the exception of places like High Tech High in San Diego). “In fact, with organisations such as Teach for All (Teach First in England), I would say that it has gone into reverse…The emphasis is now on content delivery and teaching to the test to meet league table results.” He believes there is also a lack of support and good CPD, something pi-top is addressing through a new certification programme in 2019.

Embracing change

According to Corston at STEAMCo, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of funding and resources. Plus accountability measures like the EBacc which has sidelined the arts. Campaigning to put the arts and creativity back in schools is Prince Charles. This year he gathered artists, actors, teachers and arts leaders at a high-profile event at the Albert Hall.

For HP, the breakthrough of 2018 was the announcement to the UK market by Damian Hinds, the education secretary, about the importance of technology in learning: “It has really boosted [STEAM] as an agenda item for schools/colleges/academies making it easier for the sector to want to embrace change,” said Sutton. But is it enough? “This gives the topic air time but unfortunately knowing that this gap exists and effectively bridging it together are two very different things!” he said.

Despite the challenges, organisations like STEAMhouse, a new centre at Birmingham City University are quite literally steaming ahead and addressing the concerns of future generations head-on. 2018 has seen the opening of one facility, and funding secured for another. Both are aimed at encouraging the collaboration of the arts, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEAM) sectors and providing the skills provision and facilities, which will create jobs and economic growth. At the University they have made a concerted effort to embed STEAM into much of the work and teaching. Additionally, they are about to launch a range of degree courses specifically tailored around STEAM and have already invested in scholarships, which allow researchers to expressly focus on STEAM topics.

At primary and secondary school levels, the STEAM movement “isn’t making a massive amount of difference to teachers at the coal face yet,” said Corston. Teachers are under too much pressure to consider anything new and most leaders are not brave enough to try. There have however, been glimmers of hope. Following a STEAM day at one primary school, the head was so inspired that he spent the summer completely rewriting their curriculum around STEAM. This is progress, but it has led to STEAM being embraced in small, disjointed pockets of the country by individual teachers. To work properly it needs to be embraced by senior leaders.

Not only do schools need funding for the appropriate technology, they need training in how to use it effectively as a learning tool. Without this we risk the latest tech tools being used for basic functions rather than creative projects. Another challenge faced by schools is that there is little guidance on the STEAM solutions available to them, even the free ones. Sutton at HP explained: “There is a large level of distrust, and this comes down to budgets and previous poor experience when purchasing. Budgets are so stretched that schools can’t afford to make a wrong decision when implementing new solutions and often this leads to total inaction or the replacement with like-for-like.”

Money worries

A good example of affordable tech is the BBC micro: bit; pocket-sized codeable computers. They were originally given to every year 7 pupil in the UK in 2016. This year they have gone global and are now available in over 50 countries. Programmes like this, that allow children to get creative with technology whatever their level of experience, are encouraging, but Sutton at HP told me that not enough is being done to raise awareness in schools. The HP for Education programme where schools can trade-in equipment saw only 400 of the 24k schools in the UK taking part this year.

“If there was a platform that spoke about all of the available schemes like ours, the entire sector would benefit and it would make the purchasing of edtech, which underpins the STEAM movement, much easier and more informed and ultimately support better implement solutions,” he said.

Other tools to inspire and develop a new generation of digital pioneers are being produced by the likes of pi-top. Used by over 2,000 schools globally, mini inventors can build laptops or create robots and music synths using LEDs, buttons, resistors, sensors and code. At pi-top they call this ‘Learning by Making’. “You learn a lot of science, technology, engineering, art and maths by making a musical instrument rather than simply learning these disciplines devoid of application,” said Brown-Martin.

At college and university level, changes are much more prevalent. Professor Julian Beer, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University said: “Advancements in technology have already changed the types of equipment our students now use. We are increasingly seeing students work collaboratively across faculties to encompass multiple disciplines, engendering an increased ability to address complex global challenges, and to create new solutions, products and services.”

So is the STEAM movement enduring? “It must be… it is non-negotiable that we need to better prepare our young people for the workplace they will enter,” said Sutton. Despite the challenges of “governments obsessed with 19th-century measurement systems,” Brown-Martin at pi-top is confident that STEAM is enduring: “Elsewhere, we are beginning to see some evidence of change in this preoccupation with grades. PISA leaders, Singapore and Finland, have come out against school exam rankings as has the World Economic Forum in favour of education systems that favour skills, competences and human values.”

Back in Birmingham, Beer said: “Over the next year I expect to see more individuals, educational institutions and organisations develop their STEAM offering.” In Birmingham there has been a huge rise in the number of tech start-ups. “We have certainly identified just how important STEAM will be for our city and the wider West Midlands region in the future which underpins the rationale for our investment in STEAMhouse – to give artists, academics and tech innovators a place to come together and collaborate for the benefit of the region,” he said. There is still work to be done but, thankfully, the STEAM movement is here to stay.

Incorporating STEAM across the curriculum
By Joslyn Adcock, LEGO Education
Incorporating the arts in STEM learning helps to drive student engagement and provides mainstream teachers with a simple, creative, and engaging way to introduce coding across a number of different subjects. Here are just a few examples of how we can bring STEAM learning to life…
English Task students with novel engineering. Choose a well-known book and have them identify a solution through the design engineering process to one of the challenges in the text. Students can then ask their peers to discuss the impact on the story.
Geography When learning about tectonic plates and earthquakes, ask children to program an earthquake simulator and then design buildings or tower blocks which they can test to see if they are able to withstand certain magnitudes.
Sociology Ask students to choose an environmental problem, for example, the global shortage of drinking water. Ask them to research ideas and build prototypes of what their ideas could actually look like. This could include things like a motion sensor, so that when you brush your teeth the running water turns itself off when you aren’t using it.
Encouraging a more creative mindset enhances the chances of students being able to not only retain more information but build key skills they will rely on in the future.