Brazoria County Students Gaining STEAM
By Erinn Callahan
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It seemed like a passing fad — a flashy way to spice up the traditional science, technology, engineering and math curriculum that soon would go the way of chalkboards and cursive writing.
A look into Rhonda Church’s Brazosport High School classroom will reveal that is not the case. Art students huddle around the 3-D printer near the door, craning their necks to glimpse the products that once were just a heap of plastic materials.
“Are you doing the dice one?” Church asked one student, who nodded. “That’s the hardest one.”
The STEM-based curriculum has become standard in most public school districts — particularly ones in a heavily industrial community such as the Brazosport area. However — like many of her colleagues — Church is finding ways to marry the sciences and humanities in her lessons using a technique known as STEAM, which adds art to the typical science, technology, engineering and mathematics umbrella.
“It’s just catching more and more fire,” Stephen F. Austin STEM Academy Principal Melania Gutierrez said.
GIVE THEM AN A
The unique moniker reflects both the international movement to add the arts — which can include the fine, language and musical arts — to STEM education and the school’s desire to help students pursue a different kind of 3D: discovering, designing and developing, according to an April 2014 article in EdTech Magazine.
Georgette Yakman, owner and founding researcher at STEAM Education in Marion, Virginia, explained the concept by asking people what they do for a living, then pointing out that their careers incorporate all of the subjects that they studied in school.
Rather than teach those subjects in a vacuum, STEAM programs integrate them in an inquiry-based, hands-on curriculum that more closely aligns with what students will experience in college and the workforce, according to the EdTech article.
“The main thing we’re trying to do with our kids is getting them ready to have a career, and in life, no matter what career you choose, you have to work with people. Even if you’re really focusing on math and science, there still has to be that humanities component,” Northside Elementary third-grade teacher Kelsey Payne said.
“Even if you’re an engineer designing buildings, you have to have some background with what people like because if people don’t like it, they’re not going to work there. If you’re making products, people aren’t going to use it if they don’t like it.”
Longtime STEM proponent Melissa Butterfield is studying ways to incorporate the “A” into her Angleton Junior High classroom. The robotics teacher knows she would do her students a disservice by limiting their exposure to one discipline.
“The emphasis on STEM seems to feel like it makes the other core classes unimportant, and they’re not,” Butterfield said. “If kids can learn and be good at both, why not be good at both? They don’t have to be an expert in one thing.”
STEM VS. STEAM
In an effort to combat low mathematics scores and poor performance ratings, Stephen F. Austin Elementary was pegged in 2015 to transition into a science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy open to all elementary students in the district.
Gutierrez and her staff spent many hours going over STEM curriculum to formulate lesson plans that incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, she said in 2015.
Still, transitioning to a curriculum rooted in STEM didn’t mean disregarding the arts and humanities. Rather than treating science and arts as diametrically opposed disciplines, SFA educators teach them side by side, Gutierrez said.
“It’s taking whatever challenge or problem they’re working on and looking at a way to embed the arts. They’re creating something but they’re bringing that piece in, because if you look at it as that creativity component, you’re going to bring in that,” Gutierrez said. “You can’t have it without one or the other.”
A 2014 infographic by the University of Florida showed the importance of recognizing that a “half-brain” education — an education that heavily favors either left-brained or right-brained subjects — is not good enough, according to a January 2015 Edudemic article.
“You can’t just take away that other vital component,” Gutierrez said.
Students who study the arts for four years in high school average 98 points higher on the SATs compared to those who study the same for half a year or less, the university’s research showed. Students who took music appreciation scored 61 points higher on the verbal section and 42 points higher on the math section, according to Edudemic.
“It takes a village to bring that creativity in, but it can be done,” Gutierrez said. “I see it all connected. I don’t see it as separate.”
GAINING STEAM IN THE CLASSROOM
In Angleton ISD, Payne and music teacher Juli Salzman are spearheading efforts to transition Northside Elementary School into the area’s first STEAM academy by August.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant award by the Angleton ISD Education Foundation, the school’s entire staff will receive additional STEAM training, Payne said.
The shift is less of an official designation and more of a collaboration between staff members to link students’ lessons across subject lines, the science and math teacher said.
“Nobody within the state of Texas is saying, ‘OK, Northside is now a STEAM school.’ We’re not a private school, so we’re not going to call ourselves an academy, and students who are zoned to come to Northside will still come to Northside,” Payne said. “It really starts out with teachers working and planning together.”
Teachers choose an overall theme for their lessons, adding another layer to the material their students are learning and fully fleshing out their education, Payne said.
“If I, as a science teacher, am doing a unit on natural resources, I can talk to the social studies teacher and her lessons can also be more about the humanities and people side of natural resources. Reading teachers can choose stories about conservation or natural resources,” she said. “They’re still learning about the same overall theme and those different subject areas; we can just get deeper into the subject matter.”
Student-driven learning is the main ingredient of a STEAM curriculum, Payne said.
“They are trying to think through the problems. It really promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” she said. “It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s supposed to be that way because you learn better if you’re excited about what you learn.”
Teachers at the SFA STEM Academy encourage students to follow the steps necessary to complete a project before examining ways to polish the final product, second-grade teacher Kaitlin Eighme said.
“As soon as they got to testing and they had to go back and improve the project and make adjustments, they were like, ‘What? I did everything I was supposed to,’” Eighme said. “All engineers have to go in and see where they can improve it and make it better. Now they’re constantly improving and seeking out what they can do to make it even better.”
The second-graders’ “Three Little Pigs” STEAM project was a prime example, teacher Amanda Martinez said. In addition to comparing and contrasting several variations of the popular folk tale, students had to design a house that would withstand the Big Bad Wolf’s huffing and puffing.
“We used a blow dryer. That’s how they would test it out to see if it would fall,” Martinez said. “We always give them a chance to go back and talk about what happened and what improvements might be needed.”
Last summer, Church hosted the district’s inaugural Maker Camp program, part of a nationwide initiative that encourages students to fabricate three-dimensional objects using emerging technology and software.
Church first encountered the STEAM curriculum while in graduate school. Now she tries to integrate technology into her curriculum throughout the year using 3-D printers and much of the same software she introduced to students during the camp.
“I took my two favorite things and stuck them together,” said Church, who teaches digital media classes in addition to art.
All the art made in Church’s classes is functional, she said. Students learn to modularly build items such as keychains and pendants — even jewelry for theater productions — using a 3-D printer.
“This is not new technology — it’s been around since the ’80s,” Church said. “The only difference now is it’s commercially available and affordable.”
Creating something practical lends value to the students’ learning experiences, Church said.
“I teach them how to make things and to be not just consumers, but creators,” she said. “These are things they’ll actually use when they’re out of school.”
The STEAM curriculum already has caused a distinct shift in the students’ approach to problem-solving, Martinez said.
“They are completely engaged. If we do not put a timer on, they could go on and on and on,” Martinez said. “Even when it goes off, they’re still trying to put things together, talking to their group, always asking what the next one is going to be. Right when we throw it out there to them, their minds start turning with ideas.
“By us using the engineering and design process this year, they’re getting more used to it. As we go on, it’s going to be automatic.”
Through the STEAM curriculum, students will come to see their lessons as pieces of a puzzle, Payne said, rather than items on a checklist.
“It’s such an engaging way to learn and it connects all subjects together instead of separating them out,” she said. “Life is all those components mixed together, and this STEAM concept is the first time ever that people have thought that way.”