The Importance of STEAM Initiatives in Our Curriculum

posted by Stephanie Forsman

My best memories of my elementary education are all the project-based activities that were embedded into the curriculum. Projects that were based on real-life situations that helped me learn in an innovative and creative fashion. In 4th grade, I made a large-sized teepee (out of my mother’s good linens), decorated it with Sioux symbols and it sat in our school library for several months and served as a reading nook. I have no idea how I got or secured the lumber but I remember measuring the bed linens and painstakingly wrapping them around the 3 poles and then cutting a flap for the entrance way. I remember being the “authority” on teepee life and sharing my information with classmates who were studying other aspects of Sioux life. I moved to a different school in 6th grade, a smaller school where there were 2 classes on each grade. When studying ancient civilizations, each class made up their own civilization complete with its own alphabet and culture and made artifacts to represent that culture. We then buried our artifacts in a volunteer’s backyard. (I grew up in a suburb of Chicago with plenty of room) After burying our created civilization, we became archeologists. We excavated the other class’s civilization, deciphered their artifacts and learned about their civilization. I just e-mailed with four of my 6th grade classmates and they all remember the project fondly and had hilarious anecdotes to share.

STEAM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in five specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Our 1978 6th grade civilizations projects included all of these disciplines. Science and Art are all around us, everyday. Technology is expanding into every aspect of our children’s education lives; my students have their own iPads, store work in Google Docs & Google Classroom and navigate the Internet for research and information purposes. Mathematics is in our everyday lives and Engineering is not only the construction of bridges and buildings but the repairing of broken objects and making environmentally conscious changes to our home.

“In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.” (National Science Foundation)

I believe very strongly in a STEAM based, interdisciplinary curriculum and usually, given the nature of elementary curriculum, it is social studies based.

When I taught 3rd grade, we studied Ellis Island Immigration. I loved this unit and living in New York City, there was never a shortage of what and who to study, places to visit, and immigration stories to be heard. We did an Ellis Island re-enactment and a push-cart sale to raise money for a refugee center (2 separate blogs!) But my favorite mini-unit was Tenement Life. We visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and learn all about turn-of-the-century immigrant life. My class was divided into countries or areas of study – the Eastern European Jews, the Irish, the Italians, and the Germans and each group studied the push-pull factors of each culture, timelines and immigrations numbers, and their life once they reached New York. I would then built a tenement building for the immigrants to move into. I would build it out of cardboard boxes and being the hoarder that I am, I once found a wooden dollhouse on the street that I ransacked for parts (stairs, windows, doors) to use specifically for this project. You are probably thinking, that’s not very STEAM to have the teacher build the tenement but 1. Time was always of the essence as this project was always at the end of our study and we didn’t have time for the building and 2. The building of the tenement wasn’t the take away I wanted for the students. The children decorated and added specific details according to their studies. For example, one group built a fire escape outside their window and hung laundry across it. Another group added an outhouse to the back of the tenement dollhouse. Each country had their own floor and it was their responsibility to decorated accordingly. For example, the Eastern European Jews made their apartment into a sweatshop and the Germans, who were on the bottom floor, made their apartment into a salon. I was the landlord so they had to make sure that the jobs they secured were enough to pay rent and buy food. The majority of their research was done at The Tenement Museum http://www.tenement.org/ as well as from websites and books. When the tenement was all finished, the children then served as tour guides to their parents and other children of other grades.

 

I want to take a moment to say that A LOT of planning goes into STEAM projects. Organizing groups, making sure that they have age-appropriate materials both for research and building, keeping the chaos manageable and productive, and managing expectations and classroom behavior are just some of the things you need to keep in mind before undertaking projects of this magnitude. I am very fortunate to have a STEAM Integrator and Materials Librarian at my school who can make time in her day to help out when we are working on a project and who has an endless supply of hot glue sticks, wine corks, and duct tape. I also am very lucky that I have wonderful colleagues who love to get involved and help out with their disciplines. After some research, we discovered that the later wave of immigrants had electricity in their apartments so together with our fabulous Science teacher, those groups hung working light bulbs in their apartments. The take away for this unit was how immigrants assimilated to life in the Lower East Side of New York City and what they had to endure to create a better life for themselves and their families.

When I moved to 4th grade, I was very sad to leave to leave this project behind and quickly started thinking of another STEAM project. In 4th grade, we study the Eastern Woodland Native Americans, primarily the Lenape and the Haudenosaunne/Iroquois and how they used natural resources to survive, pre contact. This screamed STEAM to me! Building an Eastern Woodland Native American village out of natural resources complete with longhouse and wigwam. I quickly set about designing a STEAM curriculum that included all the information that I wanted the children to learn about this topic. I am a teacher who thrives in controlled chaos and diving into a topic that I knew relatively nothing about, (Remember, I grew up outside of Chicago with the Sioux and the knowledge that the Blackhawks were a hockey team) I had to learn alongside of the children.

First, I want the children to know about the geography and topography of the land before colonization, before contact. We primarily looked at New York state and its rivers, mountains, the ocean, lakes, forests, and farmland. We looked at maps, websites, atlases, and books. Fascinating how little children know about where they live! Since we focus primarily on the Haudenosaunee & the Lenape, we identified where they settled and why and then taking that information, we created our own large-scale map to hang in our classroom for future reference. I gave each student a landmark to research (the Hudson River, the Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls) and it was their responsibility to add it to our classroom map. Once the map was complete, we talked about why we thought the different groups of Native Americans settled where they did. Once we set our scene, the children were ready to research about all aspects of Native American life. Through Internet research, field trips, videos, and books, the children collected the information needed to start creating our village. This time, I provided the land. I went to Lowes and bought 4ft by 8ft green foam insulation board and painted a river down the middle of it. And the children took over. They measured, built, came up with a scale consensus, decided on how to make people, and overlapped on various topics. For example, the 2 children working on the longhouse collaborated with the student working on gender roles and the students working on farming, ceremonies, and The Three Sisters. An added bonus of this project was the children realizing that they couldn’t work in isolation and that every aspect of Native American life was interdependent and the children needed to work together to and learn from one another in order to successfully plan and execute our village.

We had children building women out of clay and taking them over to the students studying clothing to cloth the women appropriately and then taking one of the women with a baby over to the student who was studying transportation to create a cradleboard for the baby and then over to the students studying farming who hung the baby and cradleboard from a tree while the woman was placed in the kitchen garden outside of the longhouse. Parents bought supplies at Michaels, we went to the park to collect bark, the art teacher suggested making rubbings of the bark on butcher paper as to make it easier to measure and place onto the longhouse, the maintenance men cut wood and wire for us and our STEAM integrator manned the hot glue gun and was forever on the lookout for more resources to deepen our knowledge. It took a village to create this village! And all the while, the children were engaged, independently problem-solving, motivated, and happy!

We had a festival day complete with traditional Native American food, storytelling, and the children acting as museum guides to parents and other students.

This project included all the elements of STEAM as well as a 5-paragraph essay about their topic of study and the children wrote their own creation stories based on Iroquois creation stories that we read in class. At the end of 4th grade, when I asked the children to reflect upon their year, almost every student said that learning about Native Americans and building the our village was the highlight of their year.

STEAM projects, whether they are embedded into the curriculum or standing alone are an amazing way to allow the students to think critically, creatively, and independently while facilitating collaborative teamwork and communication. And isn’t that the type of leaner/real world problem-solvers we want our children to be?

 

Stephanie Forsman

Stephanie Forsman—who wrote many of the math lessons on our Math at Home website—has been teaching in the New York City independent school system for more than 15 years. She is currently a fourth-grade teacher at The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, where she previously taught at the second- and third-grade levels. She has served as a facilitator for Mathematics in the City, a research and professional development center with a mission to "transform classrooms into communities of mathematicians, where children explore interesting problems and, like mathematicians, engage in crafting solutions, justifications and proofs." She has presented workshops on Math Puzzles & Logic Games, Technology and Math and Napier’s Bones at national conferences and served as the math subcommittee chair for the accreditation group conducting the New York State Association of Independent Schools’ 10-year school accreditation reviews in 2013. Stephanie earned her B.A. in art history and fine art at Trinity College in Washington, DC, and her M.Ed. in elementary education and museum education at Bank Street College in New York City. She also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa.

Read more posts by Stephanie Forsman

5 Replies to “The Importance of STEAM Initiatives in Our Curriculum”

  1. As stated, lots of planning goes into STEAM projects. I would be interested to hear advice about STEAM with young children, Kindergarten age and preschool.

  2. I love the idea of basing the STEAM curriculum around social studies content. With the interdisciplinary approach, you can cover multiple content areas at once. Although I teach pre-k, this approach will work well in my class

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