What Does STEAM Really Mean?

By Emily O’Grady, STEAM Teacher at The Langley School

It’s been about 20 years since the acronym “STEAM” was first used, and by now, we all know what it stands for. But what does it actually look like in schools? What does it mean for the curriculum? These are questions I get asked all the time when I tell people that I’m a STEAM teacher. The truth is, there’s no single neatly-packaged answer many schools have their own approach to STEAM education. 

When we began designing the K-2 STEAM program for The Langley School, we envisioned a balanced program that integrates science, technology, and engineering instruction, and extends the core subject areas of math and art, in the most relevant and meaningful way for our students. We built the STEAM program around the national standards in science and technology the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). As Mariel Milano, a writer of the NGSS, stated, “Students entering kindergarten this year will likely enter job fields upon graduation that have not yet been developed, using knowledge that has not been discovered and tools that have not yet been engineered. It will be the responsibility of elementary teachers to prepare their students for a changing world by arming them with the science and engineering background necessary to one day make informed choices and decisions.” It was essential that Langley’s program be both age-appropriate and interdisciplinary to allow our younger learners to succeed in any path they take.

The heart of our K-2 STEAM program is the engineering design process, which guides students to ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve an idea that solves a problem. Students begin to understand that they need to use scientific knowledge to successfully design a solution. 

For example, Langley’s kindergarten classes received a letter from a civil engineer seeking help from students to design a playground that will stay cool in the hot summer days. Using the scientific method, our kindergartners devised an experiment to measure the temperatures of different surfaces outside, both in shade and in full sun. The students came to the conclusion that the playground would be most comfortable with a shade structure to keep it cool.

STEAM Program at The Langley School

Next, the students worked together to plan out a playground design by drawing a model and deciding on materials to use. 

The students built the playground model and tested it under heat lamps to see if the temperature was cooler or warmer than the exposed surface. Finally, they reflected on their designs and discussed what they would change to improve them.

Second-graders also followed the engineering design process while studying water and erosion. Students were challenged to build a bridge over a river that would both resist erosion and hold the most weight.

First, students experimented with model landforms to learn how water flows and causes erosion. They then applied this knowledge to a design problem presented in a fictional story. “STEAM instruction is about providing students with needed learning opportunities to experience firsthand that key ideas in science are used to solve real problems in our world,” state Sarah Bush and Kristin Cook in Step Into STEAM. 

We emphasize the “soft skills” in STEAM. We call them the 4 C’s: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. More and more employers express how important these skills are when they seek new candidates. Opportunities to practice soft skills arise on a regular basis in STEAM class.

STEAM at The Langley School

In a first-grade STEAM class this year, a group of students was having a hard time communicating and collaborating. The lesson required students to code the Dash robots to act as the Earth and orbit a yellow circle on the ground. The students had ideas of how to do it, but they were talking over each other and arguing about who would use the iPad to write the code. With some practice and clear, respectful language, the students listened to each other and tested each others’ ideas. In doing so, they realized that no one student’s idea was perfect and collaboratively found an even better way to code the robots.  

Through STEAM lessons like this, students develop skills to prepare them for their academic journey as they dive deeper into the specific subject areas. They learn how to program an iPad or a robot using visual blockly language that builds a foundation for more advanced coding in future years. Through guided inquiry, students learn how to ask thoughtful questions, analyze data, make scientific observations, and apply their knowledge to creatively find a solution to a problem. 

As an independent school, Langley has the flexibility to adapt the curriculum to relate to current events. This month, the second-graders are working on a service learning project as they study animal habitats. After they learned about the bushfires in Australia and how so many animals are in need of help, the students decided to make fabric pouches for the rescued kangaroo joeys. Students are bringing in old t-shirts from home and will learn to measure out a pattern, cut the material, and pin it to be sewn. The Middle School sewing elective, taught by Debi Gustin, has agreed to help with the sewing of the pouches. We will send the pouches to a rescue organization in Australia that will distribute them to the areas most in need.

STEAM is not limited to the school setting. Winter days can be long, and many parents (myself included) are stuck wondering what to do with their children when it is dark and gloomy. Use it as an opportunity for family STEAM activities. If it’s icy outside, conduct an experiment with different salts on the sidewalk. Build a catapult that can throw snowballs. Fill some spray or squirt bottles with different colors of watercolor or KoolAid and paint pictures in the snow. Read books together. Build your own snow measuring stick and report the snowfall in your backyard. And be sure to share your designs and discoveries! Finally, The Langley School’s STEAM Fair (to be held on Saturday, February 8) always inspires me and gets my creative juices flowing. I hope our current families will make sure this event is on your calendar I would love to see you there!

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1 thought on “What Does STEAM Really Mean?

  1. Emily, thanks so much for your well written blog post on STEAM. I especially liked your ideas for STEAM projects that can be done at home. I learned so much about STEAM and the importancde of the soft skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication and the problem solving opportunities to practice these skills in STEAM class. Thank you!

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