A few years ago, I recall walking past the door of our school makerspace and noticing a crowd of kids surrounding a table. Inside a group of 5th and 6th graders were hovering around someone, listening intently to directions. As I inched closer I heard the quiet voice of a parent demonstrating how to do several hand stitches. The mom, a PTA regular and all-around super volunteer, was showing our students some basics in sewing. Both boys and girls watched as she shared tips and tricks. Soon the students dispersed and moved back to their workspaces around the room working on their pillows, shirts, purses, and other sewing projects.
The parent volunteered an hour each Tuesday around lunchtime to work with our students during our “open studio” time. She served as a facilitator and mentor to young makers in our elementary school for several years. The connection that she made with students helped to demonstrate the link between hands-on learning and its purpose in the real world, as well as the value that parents and community bring to the school setting. This type of active parent involvement is one effective way to begin building a network of creativity and innovation in your school.
As schools across the country are designing new learning spaces and developing innovative programs for students, educators are expanding the domains of learning beyond the walls of the schools. A supportive network of formal and informal partnerships can advance the educational transformation in your district. Creating an interconnected community of practice around STEAM Education and the Maker Movement can fuel innovation. Powerful learning occurs at the intersection of STEAM and Making. I call this important movement STEAM Makers.
STEAM Maker networks can develop spontaneously through personal connections and local partnerships, but the thoughtful construction of a creative educational network will help schools grow with leaps and bounds. You can build a STEAM Maker network in many layers, starting with the unsung heroes in your school community and broadening throughout the globe. Many school districts are purposefully adding layers of support to their network, demonstrating for students the importance of communication, collaboration, and building relationships.
Find your unsung heroes.
The first layer of your network includes the people directly linked to your school, staff, or students. This may be parents, friends, or neighbors who can contribute to the effectiveness of your STEAM Maker programs.
Possibilities: Early in the development of our STEAM Maker program, we reached out to parents in STEM fields so they could share their knowledge with our students. We invited parents in for “Lunch and Learn” sessions with our 5th and 6th grade students. X-ray technicians, patent attorneys, video game designers, and civil engineers talked with our kids about their careers. They brought in examples for students to explore and question. This idea expanded to parents and staff members who had skills and talents to share with the schools: quilters, electronics tinkerers, and amateur graphic designers. We included these STEAM Maker mentors in school initiatives, classroom projects, and school assemblies—any way possible to show students the interconnectedness of our school community.
Questions to Consider: Who on staff may have hidden talents to share with students to enhance learning? (Think about artists, carpenters, poets, programmers, gardeners) How might we promote the sharing of these skills within the school day? What can our parents share with students that can support creativity and innovation?
The second layer of the network extends beyond your close connections and begins to build a bridge outside the school community. This may include local business, regional corporations, museums, libraries, researchers, universities, and other forward-thinking school districts.
Possibilities: Think about informal learning partners and out-of-school (OOS) learning that can support your STEAM Maker mission. Schools have partnered with the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse to redesign outdoor spaces. Others have connected with local museums like The Warhol where students have learned about museum curation and created exhibits in their schools. (This recent report from the STEM Coalition provides the case for OOS learning partners).
Questions to Consider: Who can we partner with to establish collaboration around an upcoming project? What organizations in our area support STEAM education and the Maker Movement? What grants are available to support new collaborative endeavors?
“Think globally” should be the mantra for the third layer of your STEAM Maker network. This part of the network expands across states and countries, linking students to experts in the field and innovators across the globe. By integrating technology, schools can connect with others via Skype, Google Hangouts, or Twitter.
Possibilities: The Global Read Aloud is a great project for connecting with other educators around meaningful literature. In my previous school district, elementary teachers linked their classes with others across the country as they read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Not only did the students read the book and connect with peers 3000 miles away, but they also infused STEAM Maker learning as they created iMovies depicting scenes from the story, designed dolls like Edward in our makerspace, and then shared them with other students through the project.
Questions to Consider: Which organizations are willing to connect with schools? How can we enhance our curriculum to include connections with experts in science, technology, engineering, art, and math? What resources can I access to help to expand our learning network?
Broadening the Network
Adding layers to your STEAM Maker network is not just the responsibility of educators. Many statewide initiatives (in Arizona, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) involve creating STEM/STEAM networks bringing together educators, businesses, and government around a common goal to prepare young people for the future. Cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh are also developing their own learning ecosystems connecting formal and informal learning.
I’m lucky to live in Pittsburgh, where creativity is supported by a large community of educators, foundations, and community organizations. We have a rich culture of music, museums, and the arts. Colleges and universities in the region support our schools and embrace partnerships that can enhance teaching and learning for the city’s young people. It’s remarkable the amount of opportunities that are fostered around this city!
When I tell you that Pittsburgh has a unique STEAM Maker Network, here’s one example. I was recently invited to a “Wisdom Exchange” at the Luma Institute. It is an organization that helps individuals, team, and organizations to innovate through Human-Centered Design. Their team, along with others from the Remake Learning Network facilitated a morning of sharing and networking as representatives from school districts, intermediate units, and local educational organizations presented 3-minute “Lightning Talks”. These talks highlighted our organization’s efforts to innovate followed by an idea that each group was hoping to grow over the course of the next year. The goal of the meeting was to connect with one or two other organizations in the room and take some “small, bold steps” toward innovation. After the talks, groups connected and began to develop ideas to expand their STEAM Maker networks. The new partnerships will meet monthly over the course of the next year to develop their idea with support from Luma.
If you aren’t familiar with the Remake Learning Network, this recent article by Gregg Behr, Executive Director of the Grable Foundation, provides a rich glimpse into the network and the impact it has had on Pittsburgh’s young people.
The learning network that you develop may not focus on STEAM or Making. Use the resources that you have within each layer to develop an ecosystem that supports the type of learning that is meaningful in your school, with your students. As more and more people and organizations are added to your network, the opportunities for students will continue to increase—and isn’t that what education is all about?