S T E A M … it’s a musical.
If Australia wants to be a truly creative and innovative nation then the Arts have to be in the mix. Increasingly we should be talking about STEAM in schools with the Arts at the centre of the conversation. This type of thinking was behind the creation of a school musical: Somewhere Between Here There and Everywhere performed in September at St Vincent’s Primary School Aranda in the ACT.
The school musical is not necessarily a new activity in the cultural life of schools but drawing in syllabus outcomes from across five disciplines and seeing it as an opportunity to create a driving question and using it in an inquiry within a project based structure could possibly be a first?
Two teachers at the school Sam Beattie and Luke Maher were the behind this STEAM project that involved 200 students in years K- 6 as well as 19 teachers and support staff. They were supported by their school principal Lina Vigliotta and Lora Bance, Innovation Officer at Catholic Education, Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn.
What does it take to put on a great show?
This question was the driver that informed the learning leading up to the public performances of the musical for family, friends and the school community. Sam and Luke knew that their Year 6 students were particularly interested in the performing arts and they loved creating small performances. What kind of creative outlet might harness this energy and talent? The teachers decided that a school musical was a natural choice and their Year 6 students (N=41) could be the main actors and form the central cast in the show.
Luke took charge of writing the script in consultation with the Year 6 students using songs from popular musicals. The whole process sowed the seeds of a possible STEAM inquiry. At St Vincent’s there is an existing practice of inquiry learning and curriculum integration. This orientation to pedagogy has been embedded in the school for many years and has resulted in a range of inquiry units and publicly performed culminating tasks focused mainly around the subjects of History, Science and Geography.
Inquiry approaches to learning at the school allow for more teaching time, and project based learning is an integrated practice across the school. It is not a stand-alone activity in what is an already crowded curriculum. Students have found inquiry-based learning motivating and engaging.
However, over time the context of the school has changed and students have progressively developed better research skills through technology use and this development has led to learners who are more able to investigate independently and bring their own understandings and questions to the topics studied.
Being a digital technology leader in the school helped
Sam is Digital Technologies lead teacher and was invited to attend an accredited professional learning workshop offered by the local jurisdiction. It was facilitated by Dr Jane Hunter from the University of Technology Sydney and focused on the High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) framework developed out research in teachers’ classrooms. Sam left the workshop excited by its potential for future inquiry units and especially in the context of the upcoming musical. Initially the musical was going to concentrate on drama, dance, and theatre. Nevertheless, the five HPC conceptions enabled the Year 6 teachers to better respond to the changing nature of their students’ learning and increased the possibilities for technology-enhanced learning when integrating the STEAM disciplines. Tasks in the all day workshop encouraged planning with a STEM and STEAM lens and therefore combining the ideas into a musical was a logical next step.
Principles of Understanding by Design
Another influence on the STEAM approach taken by the teachers was McTighe & Wiggins (1999) principles in Understanding by Design (UbD). These principles focus on ‘backward design’ and are about attention to teaching that achieves understanding. Each Year 6 student had to keep a ‘Producers Diary’ throughout the term as a means to record the curriculum content, the learning process, photos/images – it became a place to respond to questions. The diary artefact would be an assessable item alongside the public performances and would be given to the parents/carers at the end of term – it was also on display for viewing by the community on the final performance night. This diary was a type of program just like the one you might get at a real theatre performance.
Questions that underpinned the musical
The inquiry learning that took place in STEAM was driven by one driving question and a series of sub-questions in each discipline; they are set out below:
What does it take does it take to put on a great show?
|How do lights in the theatre work to create stage effects of colour, brightness and themes?
How do electrical circuits work to create light in the theatre?
|Can I create a working light and sound user interface using coding and programming?
What are the technological elements of the theatre and how have they changed over time?
|Can I design and engineer a working puppet using recycled cardboard?
|Can I create a poster, online, and TV advertisement that is attractive and gets people to come to the show?
Can I create a dance routine that can be used in our show?
Can I create a production script?
|Can I create a refreshments budget for food sold in the theatre?
Can I estimate and measure the space of our performance hall and accurately find the seating capacity?
Can I locate a variety of costumes internationally and convert the cost in their original currency to Australian dollars?
Both Sam and Luke’s classes used the collaborative power of online tools and in most cases assessment results for this learning activity exceeded their expectations. They wanted students to have autonomy in their STEAM learning, to work in teams to create new things, to use technology and their talents as long as they could justify and show that learning in their personal ‘Producer’s Diary’. Here are some typical comments from a few students after the final performance:
‘I thought the teacher’s expectations were way too high and we wouldn’t be able to finish everything. I was very wrong. It was fun’ – Ella
“I found everything got very hard towards the end, but it all paid off and our show was amazing.” – James
“I will remember this show for the rest of my life” – Sakthi
Wider community engagement in STEAM and looking to the future
This STEAM inquiry also engaged communities outside the school. For example: local high school dance and drama teachers who provided performance information and skills; industry professionals at the Canberra Theatre, who through excursions to the site showed students the STEAM elements they use every day; and a high school production crew from St Francis Xavier College, who came and worked the sound and lights for the week of the show.
Education has changed. Old models of programming don’t fit anymore – using a pedagogical framework like HPC plus new thinking involving the integration of multiple disciplines using a STEAM lens and the dedication of these teachers gave students at St Vincent’s a learning experience they will remember forever. Absolute joy!
Sam Beattie, Information Technologies Lead Teacher/ Year 6 Classroom Teacher and Luke Maher Religious Education Coordinator/ Year 6 Classroom Teacher at St Vincent’s Primary School Aranda in the ACT. Jane Hunter was a classroom teacher and is an education researcher in pedagogy and technology-enhanced from the STEM Education Futures Research Centre at the University Technology Sydney.
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