Jan 31 2020

Technology Helps Schools Answer the ‘Why’ of STEAM Learning

Makerspaces can help K–12 students develop skills needed for emerging career paths.

From 3D printing programs to robot coding, creative software integration and iterative design programs, schools are investing in makerspaces to drive student success.

For example, students in Smithfield, Va., are using 3D printers to create hydraulic claws that help tackle a real-world problem: trash. In Boulder County, Colo., students at Dawson School have access to a makerspace equipped with 3D printers, a laser cutter and computers. The school is undergoing an expansion that includes a 24,500-square-foot, three-floor innovation center slated to open by fall.

But what’s powering this shift? How are schools iterating on the makerspace model, and what educational best practices make this mandate work?

It’s part of a push to encourage the four C’s — creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking — among students and give them the science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) foundation they need to develop skills that stick, even when school is over.

Supporting Students’ Paths to ‘New Collar’ Careers

IBM President, Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty coined the term “new collar” to describe emerging career paths in IT that require substantial skill but aren’t defined by traditional white- or blue-collar expectations. This speaks to a broader shift in skill sets. Employers say they struggle to find workers with soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability and communication.

Makerspaces in K–12 schools can help bridge this gap by equipping students with the tools and technology they need to hone those skills, such as independent problem-solving, while also seeing the real-world impact of their work.

There’s not one right way to leverage the benefit of makerspaces. Administrators need to find the combination of teaching and technology that works best for students and staff.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn how modern learning environments remove barriers to learning.

Some examples of innovative makerspace implementations include:

Robot Revolutions: Kid-sized robots and coding tools such as Sphero and littleBits are popular options for STEAM classrooms. How popular? Sphero’s education division has “grown significantly over the past four years, now serving more than 20,000 teachers and 1.5 million kids worldwide,” says Michelle Acaley, senior director of Edu Program Management at Sphero.

The company’s line of littleBits electronic building blocks let students create prototypes without the need for screens. Teachers can leverage Sphero Edu software for lesson plans and access to both self-service professional development and Xoom meetings.

The popular Sphero Bolt and SPRK+ robots offer K–12 classroom integration. Younger students can use draw programming to direct their bots, while older kids can design mazes and other challenges. And with built-in Bluetooth connections, all created programs are streamed rather than downloaded, meaning no internet connection is required.

“The goal is computational thinking, solving problems. Developing this 21st-century skill is the best way to prepare students,” Acaley says.

Minecraft Mandate: In Pennsylvania, Montour School District is seeing success with their Minecraft Education Lab, one of the district’s makerspaces. Justin Aglio, Montour’s director of academic achievement and district innovation, says the space began with a simple question: What gets kids excited, and how can we capture that in the school building?

The world-building game Minecraft was a popular answer, so Montour equipped a classroom with desktop computers that had Minecraft installed to “let students create with something familiar.” For example, after reading a story, students recreate the setting and characters in Minecraft, enabling them to make hands-on, real-world connections to what they read.

Low-Tech Learning: Montour also has a certified Brick Makerspace in partnership with Lego Education. Legos help students visualize concepts, such as area and perimeter, using only a few plastic blocks, Aglio says, offering a simple transition from theoretical concepts to practical instruction.

Achieving Measurable Academic Gains with Makerspaces

Anderson Elementary in Bristol, Tenn., is an example of how makerspaces can drive measurable student success. In an effort led by Principal Ginger Christian, the school leveraged STEAM solutions — specifically, makerspaces — to improve student behavior and enhance engagement.

Montour has seen similar academic gains with successful makerspace integration, Aglio says. The district saw its math performance on state standardized tests improve by about 14 percentage points over two years. But tools and tech alone can’t create success; making it work requires curricula that leverage three key concepts:

Choice: For Aglio, Montour’s programs are all about “voice and choice.” The district recognizes the need to “use things that motivate kids in 2020,” he said. Any STEM makerspace program that doesn’t include student input won’t deliver optimal results. For example, Montour uses CNC machines and 3D printers to help students make holiday ornaments, delivering 3D printing education in the context of enjoyable experience.

Communication: What happens if students using Minecraft have a question? Aglio describes the typical teacher response: “I don’t know, who can help them?” While the school does have a Minecraft global ambassador, the goal of makerspaces is to facilitate problem-solving through peer communication and collaboration.

Common outcomes: Students define their approach, but teachers must define the outcome, Aglio says. To help teachers with that goal, the district plays to their strengths. “We are the learning experts,” he says, “so we focused on learning outcomes.” For educators, makerspaces are about changing the form, not the function — aligning common outcomes with evolving opportunities yields the best of both worlds.

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