A report released on Thursday 31st March cited that five years ago there were 2.3 million people in Australia (that is 10 percent of the population) with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) qualifications. According to Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, the report Australia’s STEM Workforce shows that studying STEM opens up countless job opportunities. He said, “The most striking finding in my mind is the range of occupations that people with STEM qualifications have pursued” (Barbashow, ZDNet, 2016).
There is no doubt that STEM is a hot-ticket education item across the globe right now as countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia galvanise technology industries, scientists, universities, high-profile experts, political parties, schools and the wider community to take a more proactive interest in all matters science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
STEAM is Important
What is now noticeable is how the arts and humanities subjects in schools are jostling for their important role in ensuring young people are STEM literate. There is no denying that in conversations about STEM there is recognition that these subjects too are essential in the STEM equation.
Fareed Zakira (2016), a weekly columnist with The Washington Post and blogger with 642K followers, said, “A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross-fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.”
Echoing that idea is the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who noted in a talkback show in early March, “No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even… write” (Medium blog post, 2016).
In Australia, the STEM effort in many primary schools includes humanities and the arts and therefore education leaders refer to a STEAM focus (with A for the Arts), which sits alongside STEM with subjects like history, geography and English – these all have parity of time in an open STEAM timetable, where large chunks of learning time for a couple of hours of STEAM Time each day are critical.
This is the approach of deputy principal Debbie Evans and her STEAM Team at Wahroonga Public School (WPS) in Sydney. “In Stage 1 this term we are combining science and history in a unit titled A Toy Story and, in Stage 2, All Fired Up is all about science targeting the topics of heat and sustainability,” she explained. The classes use carefully selected resources from a curated wiki that has been planned with the syllabus outcomes using backward mapping and STEAM assessment rubrics. Debbie added, “Teachers must really know what science is. It is not about the facts – teachers need to guide students to ask good questions and they themselves must understand the inquiry method for science.” One key observation made during some time spent at WPS was the relentless questioning carried out by teachers of students while they conducted their STEAM work, and the way students reciprocated and modeled this in the enormous number of questions they asked each other. What a shift!
In a quick whirl through the STEAM classrooms in April, there was palpable excitement and risk taking in learning from often, very young children. Some students dressed in lab coats in STEAM Time (rewards for previous successful hypothesizing and experimentation apparently) and there was a group of parents in Emma Bent’s Stage 1 classroom who were getting in on the STEAM action in preparation for the culminating activity in the Great Bush School Sailing Toy Challenge in the last week of term.
Many hands on deck make for easier STEAM work in classrooms – it is demanding, active teaching.
In Amanda Courtney’s Stage 1 classroom, every child had a role to play in time trials for the concluding challenge and Alex, the Sailing Toy race organiser, took control of proceedings with his hooter while other students recorded time-trial speeds on spreadsheets. Cynthia Groves, the third Stage 1 teacher involved in the unit, was keen to explain, “For each of the sailing toys students created there were constraints, and they have tested and re-tested prototypes… it has been about developing practical scientific knowledge – they have had to work co-operatively in small groups and really follow instructions to make their sailing boats move.”
In the Stage 2 All Fired Up classroom there were students handling infrared thermometers with the ease and efficiency of any adult. Others were recording data in spreadsheets on laptops, or making predictions on whiteboard surfaces on classroom walls, while most worked patiently and diligently in enthusiastic ‘heat lab’ teams.
One pair of students shared their science problem in the milk bottle heat simulation, “We have learned the difference between temperature and heat… the rate of ice melting inside the plastic bottle is dependent on the temperature inside our classroom… it is hotter, so it melts faster.”
Stage 2 teacher Alix Spillane gave this insight on the STEAM activity, “The improved use of scientific language is one thing I have detected. Students know how to conduct a fair test, they know what it is, they know what variables are, hypothesis… a controlled experiment – they use the correct terms in verbal and written explanations.”
STEAM Teaching is Great Teaching
In essence, STEAM teaching is quality teaching and learning where students are in the task and where they engage in significant real-world problem solving and problem finding that involves relentless questioning. In STEAM classrooms, students work collaboratively to find answers to their scientific investigations.
There is no doubt that when WPS students leave their primary school classrooms all STEAMed up, they will be ready for high school teachers to continue their piqued interest and love of STEM subjects. The Chief Scientist would approve.
STEAMpunks 2016 Conference
In early June, Debbie Evans has organised the STEAMpunks 2016 Conference to consolidate the school’s STEAM learning focus – not only among students, but also for ongoing teacher professional development in her school and with local primary schools. Amanda Fox, a film and broadcasting instructor and former social sciences teacher at the STEM academy in Savannah, US, will conduct a workshop at the conference. Amanda will speak first in Australia in a keynote address in Brisbane at EduTECH. Details for the STEAMpunks 2016 Conference at Wahroonga Public School can be found at steampunks2016.wordpress.com
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Jane Hunter is conducting postdoctoral research in STEM in primary schools. She works in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney. Jane would like to thank Debbie Evans, Alix Spillane, Emma Bent, Amanda Courtney and Cynthia Groves for their input to this article. Debbie Evans has taught in NSW schools for more than 25 years and still maintains her zest for teaching by a clear focus on planning and quality teacher professional learning in combination with her love of technology and what it inspires in learning for young people. Classroom teachers Alix, Emma, Amanda and Cynthia are enthusiastic about the opportunities that teaching brings at this time in education history in primary schools.
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