STEAM Education and the Maker Movement in schools should and must not be a temporary trend…

Gustavo explains why STEAM Education needs to continue to get the attention it deserves to ensure it doesn’t fall victim to ‘trend fanaticism’

STEAM Education and the Maker Movement in schools should and must not be a temporary trend...

In Mexico and most Latin American countries we live a “trend fanaticism” when we talk about strategies in education. It looks like our governments decide educational policies based on trends and not by analyzing what the world and society need for future development. As an example of this, I could mention the bilingualism strategy or the introduction of technology in the classroom or the very famous robotics classes.  All of these strategies were intended to offer a trendy education but lacked any analysis into the purpose of introducing these tools, methodologies and learning approaches within the school system.

Which competencies and skills could be used to develop a bilingual program? Which digital skills would develop an ICT class and why would these be needed in a new creative economy? Why include a robotics class? Do we need a strategy to develop teamwork and problem solving among our students? If so, why is this needed and how would we measure if this strategy has worked? These are the kinds of questions that spring to my mind every time a new strategy is announced. Since 2017, Mexico has popularized the so-called Makerspaces and Digital Fabrication Labs. The intention to bring the Maker Movement into schools alongside a STEAM Education strategy looks likely to be a “new trend”. I am an active member of the Maker STEAM Education community in my country and I am enthusiastic about these educational approaches for a simple reason; I have applied these in my own classes and I have witnessed the impact on learning and my students’ performance.

Based on this I dare to suggest that STEAM Education and the Maker Movement at school should and must not be a temporary trend. The skills developed by my students when I put them to work in Maker STEAM projects are impressive. This is why I invite all schools that have the intention to bring this “new trend” into their educational strategy to first ask why it is important and then ask how will it benefit students?

Both technical and soft skills are needed

I strongly urge that Maker STEAM Education should not be seen as a temporary trend.  This is because it is a strategy that responds effectively to the need for students to develop both technical and soft skills. When I ask about the reasons why we are trying to introduce this “new trend”, this is maybe one of the most powerful answers: since 2018 when I opened the first Makerspace at my school I could see how these alternative learning environments, alongside hands-on learning experiences and a completely new teachers’ role, helped students develop not only technical skills (which is kind of logical in these spaces) but soft skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, teamwork, resilience, empathy, problem solving, all skills that are very important in the new creative economy.

Since 2015 we have in our school Alexa S, a student with language dysphasia. This condition does not allow her to interact with her classmates in a regular way. Besides the social impact, Alexa struggled with her classes and she was not making significant progress at school. In 2016, a recommendation was submitted to her parents to hire a monitor so she could help Alexa in a more personal way during her classes. This resulted in Alexa become more isolated from her classmates and had a significant impact on her interpersonal skills.

In 2018, we opened a Makerspace, and we refer to this learning space as “a secure place not only physically which is obviously needed (we have hard tools) but also emotionally so our students are confident enough to try new things without a fear of failure”.  This is exactly what the makerspace represented for Alexa. When she is in this space working in a Maker STEAM project, she is totally independent, no monitors are needed. She is even the leader of her team and she is the 3D printer and laser cutter specialist.  Alexa is a mentor for her classmates in the use of these tools. She is not only capable in using technical tools but she has also developed three important skills that she could never develop in her regular classes with traditional instruction: agency, resilience and frustration tolerance. I have lots of stories like this in my classes and this is why I strongly believe Maker STEAM education should be far more than only a “temporary trend”.

The importance of Creativity in the 4th industrial revolution and the Age of AI and Automation

During 2020 an emerging and disruptive technology knocked on the door of our societies in such a harsh way. Artificial Intelligence alongside an era of Automation is closer than ever, promising a completely new way of living, working, learning and all the verbs related to the way we do things right now. AI is now replacing many jobs and at the same time is creating new ones. These new jobs require a common skill: Creativity, this is possibly one of the most complicated skills to perform through AI algorithms, at least in the upcoming ten year period.

Hence, the importance of developing creative thinking among our students and the need to foster a creative culture in every classroom, in every school. Creativity is one of the skills that I have seen flourish since I designed our Maker STEAM Education strategy in our school. More than 50% of our girls are now involved in projects or careers that involve STEAM disciplines, compared to the 2% we had before our Makerspace opening in 2018. We are not introducing STEAM Education or the Maker Movement in our school only to have more girls and young women interested in pursuing a career in science or engineering, we teach this way because we are aware about the world in which our girls will live in the upcoming future, and the society they should impact with the skills these kinds of projects, methodologies and tools develop in our students. Living in a digital world immersed in the 4th industrial revolution requires people who are capable of designing science and technology from a humanistic perspective that improves people’s lives for the better and this is our why.

BONUS: Do you want to test what a Maker STEAM project can do for your students?

I would like to share a quick Rapid Prototyping Project which works with a Maker STEAM approach. I have not only tried this with my students, but during the many workshops that I have delivered online around the world during the disruptive year that was 2020. The results have been encouraging.

Rapid Prototyping - a Maker STEAM Project proposal - Calderón, 2020

Choose a problem that you would like to solve

For this first stage I ask my students to select a problem they are interested in solving. Selecting the problem independently is the first step in creating a meaningful learning experience. I strongly recommend working with the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN as a common ground on problems that should be of interest to all humanity (For more information about the SDGs: https://sdgs.un.org/goals).

Ideate a solution for the problem you are intended to solve

In this stage I ask my students to work through a brainstorming exercise to come up with an idea of a solution to the selected problem. I use many strategies for ideation, but one I fully recommend is Disney’s Creative Strategy, since it allows students to think from different perspectives about one single problem (For more information about the Disney’s Creative Strategy: https://miro.com/templates/disney-creative-strategy/).

Sketch your idea

After coming up with an idea of a solution, I invite my students to sketch it. This sketch should not only be a simple graphic, but they should try to include functionalities, the different components of the product/service and other features that may be used to describe the solution in a better way.

Validate your idea with a stakeholder

Once they have their sketches I encourage them to share their ideas with some possible stakeholders e.g. if they are trying to solve a problem related to pollution in the oceans and they have designed an autonomous machine that can collect, classify and recycle trash from the ocean, they should also contact a specialist in image recognition or someone in a non-profit that promotes ocean preservation.

Improve your idea

After having a validation with stakeholders I encourage my students to use this valuable feedback in order to improve their ideas and their sketches.

Build a look like/work like prototype

In this stage of “learning by doing” I ask my students to build a prototype using materials they have at home (bottles, cardboard, glue, scissors, paper, among others). They could also create a functional prototype by integrating the cardboard prototype with some technology that emulates functionality (Arduino, Microbit, Raspberry pi boards, sensors, actuators).

Validate your prototype with a stakeholder

Once they have a prototype, I invite my students to get in touch again with stakeholders in order to get a second round of feedback, this time about their prototypes.

Test it and improve your prototype

Rapid prototyping is an iterative process, thus it is very important they test their creations and get feedback from users and make the improvements based on user experience.

Share your work with a real audience

I highly recommend not to miss this final stage, which I think is one of the most meaningful parts of this process. Sharing the learning journey and the documented results from this process is so important. I usually invite some people from the school community and also some specialists related to my students’ projects. Giving a spotlight to students’ work is the first step to generate confidence, empowerment and agency in students.

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