Conversations in Education
From teacher book groups to conversations in the faculty lounge, Prep faculty and administrators think a lot about how we support students. Each month in 2017-18, we are featuring a piece by a Prep faculty member or administrator that gives a slice of life at Prep. If you would like to share your ideas, feel free to comment on an individual post or contact Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper.
From teacher book groups to conversations in the faculty lounge, Prep faculty read and talk a lot about education. Each month we highlight a few memorable pieces or videos. Our goal is to make the process of parenting, learning and living a little saner, to put things a little more in perspective. These articles will be chosen by Prep teachers and administrators. If you want to share your ideas, feel free to comment on an individual post or contact Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper.
Playing with STEAM
By Nick Ponticello
Teenagers and power tools. Sounds like an explosive combination, right? Nevertheless, teaching students to use power tools is exactly what we are trying to do with Prep’s STEAM program, which began in August 2015. STEAM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) is all about getting your hands dirty: building things, growing things, trying things, retrying things. STEAM thinking is about the process more than the product—about design, engineering, failure and redesign. Often we refer to this constant reworking of ideas as an iterative process: tinkering with something until it works.
This concept of iteration could not have been more evident last December when we held our first woodworking workshop at Prep. A dozen students showed up during a Thursday community block to learn how to craft with wood. They started with a flat piece of plywood and were told to design a structure—a birdhouse, for example—that they could make using only the most basic of tools. The students started with rulers and pencils, tracing out their designs before cutting into the wood. Once they had successfully completed the design phase, they picked up handsaws, buzzsaws and wood glue to bring their designs to life.
Don’t worry—obviously we didn’t just let the kids pick up buzzsaws and go at it. Six adults on hand, hailing from departments as varied as Spanish and Drama, helped guide the activity. But even for some of the adults, this was a novel experience.
To emphasize how much STEAM thinking values process over product, we can look to the workshop’s end results. Only one student produced a final, working product: a birdhouse. Everyone else came away with crumbling structures, a pile of jagged wood or some combination of the two.
But were the students discouraged? No! The entire philosophy behind STEAM thinking is to teach students how to solve a problem. And there is no better way to do it than to let them loose on a project with minimal instruction (but ample supervision) and see how they tackle roadblocks on their own.
The STEAM program has been building steam (haha) for nearly two years now. A dedicated cohort of faculty members meets once a month to discuss engineering, art and design in the classroom, seizing on interdisciplinary connections. These teachers have learned, for example, how to use Prep’s 3D printers and how to design three-dimensional objects using online software called TinkerCad. They have participated in National Coding Week by getting, for some, their first taste of “for loops” and “if/then” statements. They have even worked with rudimentary circuit boards to convince works of art to talk or bark.
What do we really do at these meetings? I like to think we play around with stuff.
And we want our students to play around with stuff, too. Hence woodworking, just one of many workshops designed to get kids thinking more about STEAM. We have also hosted our students on the 3D printers, taught them to design objects in TinkerCad, got them thinking about the anatomy of bugs through drawing, had them sew light-up circuits into bracelets and taught them how to photograph microscopic images.
And, while we’ve also embedded STEAM formally into the curriculum in many ways, from algorithmic thinking classes to interdisciplinary projects, what makes the activities listed above so special is that they are entirely voluntary. During community blocks, students have the choice to spend their time in a variety of ways. But lo and behold, students always materialize in the science lab or the art studio to play around with stuff and ideally learn something along the way, too.
Nick Ponticello teaches Calculus and is Prep’s STEAM Coordinator.
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