Bringing learning to life through STEAM

Image: Ars Electronica

There is a rising need for employees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at a liminal time: calls to program automatons multiply, even as automation takes jobs away. Still, not everyone should become a by-the-book programmer or STEM specialist; tomorrow will place a higher value upon creative thinking. Turning STEM into STEAM by adding an A for Arts can help turn our classrooms into a creative learning environment!

Students must learn new ways to approach problems, gain skills, and create and use tools in innovative ways. An education that keeps students isolated from real problems can no longer be the norm. Flexibility and variation ought to be the goal of education – preparing young people to apply tools creatively, in virtual and real community with others, across former disciplinary boundaries. This integrative approach to STEAM is quickly spreading around the globe!

Deserting from school: Boaz, 12

I first met 12-year-old Boaz in 2017, at the MindCET Center for Educational Technology, located in the middle of the Negev Desert in Israel. We were both attending a hackathon event which assigned us 24 hours to plan “the learning environment of the future”. Our team was made up of educational experts, mathematicians, engineers, inventors and artists from Cambridge, Jerusalem, Korea and Finland. We chose Boaz as our leader – to rely on his first-hand experiences, ideas and wishes regarding the future of education rather than the bold prophecies of the field’s oracles.

Boaz told us that, even though he attended one of the best schools in Israel and thought the majority of his teachers were excellent, he still felt it was wasted time. The problems they were tackling in the classroom did not confront any of the issues Boaz saw in the world outside, like war, famine and hatred.

It should not only be possible but imperative for children to attend school with the aim of improving the world. Authentic problem-solving projects provide opportunities for learners to be appraised based on their contribution to the success of their communities. Led by Boaz’s insights into the issue, we conceptualised a learning environment of the future in which problem-solving is based on the integration of approaches and tools from STEAM, processes are gamified, and tasks are organised and funded via crowd-sourcing.

Boaz testing his water-harvesting robot prototype

Image: Changwook Choi

The T-Rex of Motivation and the Engaged Eye: Jussi, 12 and Roosa, 14

We find another example from a tiny Finnish village called Juuka, where the STEAM Experience Workshop in 2016 provided educational support for the Structural Ice project, which had made the world’s largest ice dome. Jussi, a local schoolboy, was not interested in constructing models of ice dome structures and studying the six-fold symmetry of snowflakes, but preferred targeting the sports hall window with his soccer ball. However, after seeing the STEAM workshop space and discovering the fun LEGO-like activities found there, Jussi quickly changed his mind. For an hour and a half, Jussi devoted his entire attention to his own design process. The result was a perfectly proportioned model skeleton of a T-Rex, complete with moving jaws and tail.

T-Rex design by Jussi

Image: Netta Konttinen

Years of school had passed before Jussi could work undisturbed on a project exciting enough to reveal his design and engineering abilities, leading to a result that finally brought him praise.

As part of the same event, on the same day I was leading a giant dome construction workshop for the first time. This is a five-fold, symmetrical, 3-metre-high and 5-metre-wide geodesic dome built by 100 students through a complicated problem-solving process incorporating nearly 1,000 separate pieces. In fact, I had completely lost my place in the construction process a third of the way through. Roosa, a student who had volunteered to document the workshop, recognised my hesitation, gave her camera to me and took the lead. She brilliantly helped to correct all my errors and coordinated the group work of students to finish the structure in the given time.

The Giant Dome has been built a couple of dozen times since then, in many parts of the world. I have learnt to always look for the girls with the most engaged expressions to turn to; it is to them I can entrust leadership duties, when I step back and let the participants work out solutions on their own.

Experience Workshop's Giant STEAM Dome

Image: Natalie Wood Photography

Clearly, breaking down “subject silos” by developing the multidisciplinary and phenomenon-based forms of learning – where the Arts are integrated into problem-solving – adds a creative and human dimension which can bring learning to life.

Kristóf Fenyvesi, PhD, is a researcher in STEAM Trans- and Multidisciplinary Learning and Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He is Vice-President of the world’s largest mathematics, arts and education community, the Bridges Organization. In 2008 he started the Experience Workshop, and in 2016 he was invited by the European Commission as a STEAM expert for the H2020 projects evaluation.