Sunday / April 21

Becoming a STEAM Maker

When you were growing up, what did you enjoy playing with? If you were like me, maybe it was Tinker Toys, an Easy Bake Oven, or Lite Brite. I liked designing and creating things. As a teenager, my imagination ran wild as my ideas turned into sketches which later covered the walls of my bedroom. (Thanks Mom, for never painting over the walls—even 25 years later!)

My own children love building and messing around with things, too. It’s amazing how long a few cardboard boxes or toilet paper rolls and some duct tape will keep them entertained. (We’ve built forts, spaceships, and garages for all their Match Box cars.) It’s the nature of these learning experiences that allow young people to think creatively and use their imagination.

With a focus on standards, accountability, and assessment over the last decade or so, it seemed that these opportunities disappeared from our schools. However, within the last few years, the tide is beginning to turn. I believe an exciting shift is happening in education as schools across the country are embracing the Maker Movement and returning creative, hands-on learning opportunities to their classrooms. Additionally, STEAM education has come to the forefront with an emphasis on preparing students for college, career, and beyond, focusing on the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. STEM has transformed into STEAM as the arts become an integral component to meaningful learning.

In many schools, the STEAM and maker education are colliding. Hybrid models are being created that embrace the integration of STEAM components and the creative spirit of the Maker Movement. At the intersection between STEAM and making, powerful learning occurs. I would argue that a new movement is emerging—STEAM Makers.

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The STEAM Maker movement is alive and well in schools like Crafton Elementary, where the STEAM Studio has incorporated the use of building kits (an easy entry point for many kids) and included “real stuff”. Thanks to a partnership with the MAKESHOP® at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, students use real tools and materials, not just those in pre-fabricated kits. The integration of both allows students (and teachers) to not just think in terms of what comes in the boxed kit, but rather activate their imaginations to use the tools in an “outside of the box” way. In Avonworth Elementary, students in kindergarten are using small motorized parts to create mini robots that draw. Their makerspace is stocked with clean recyclables that students use for projects both in and out of the traditional curriculum. STEAM Making can be experimental and includes tinkering, designing, and messing around, but it also connects academic content in tangible ways for learners.

STEAM Makers think about education with a mindset that supports growth and new possibilities which can be defined within the 4 Ps:

  • People
  • Personalization
  • Persistence
  • Play

Innovative educators are the people propelling this idea forward. Not just principals and district leaders, but teachers, librarians, and even students. Makers in the community are connecting with schools and adding to the momentum. At the heart of the STEAM Maker movement is a sense of community and collaboration as people get together to create, learn, and reflect. STEAM Maker learning involves tapping into the experts in your school community. Maybe there are parents with a creative skill like sewing, or one who has a knack for woodworking. Parents and community members can serve as STEAM Maker mentors sharing their knowledge and supporting students and teachers as they try new things.

STEAM and Making are strategies that make personalization possible. Personalization happens as students choose learning paths based on their interests. This can happen through “passion projects” where students can research a topic and demonstrate their knowledge of that topic through presentations, models, performances, digital animation or some other way. Personalization can also happen with teachers. One STEAM Maker teacher brought his personal love of robotics and engineering into his second grade classroom as he shared Rokenbok materials with them ( Not only did the students love designing and building with these materials because it was fun, but even more so because they saw the excitement from their teacher!

I’m sure we can all agree that we want our students to succeed, but how often do we let them grapple with concepts? Do you ever set your students up to fail? Do you plan lessons in which the outcome is uncertain? STEAM Maker learning moves away from direct instruction and mastery learning and embraces student inquiry and exploration. This type of learning requires that students develop a sense of persistence in their approach.

Design challenges are a great example of this. I recently watched as our students in grades 5 through 8 designed and built “turkey traps” to catch a remote controlled bird who had been wreaking havoc in our school. Student teams used recyclable materials to construct a trap and tested their models. Very few were successful the first time around. This frustrated them, but they went back to their traps and redesigned. They were determined to come up with a new solution.

While this example has some novelty, as we held our design challenge right before the Thanksgiving break, students of all ages are able to create for social good, solving real problems.  A group of students from an area high school designed and built an outdoor water table so that students in kindergarten could engage in hands-on play while learning basic science concepts. A Tinker Squad from another school brainstormed and designed ways to keep people safe in their local playground at night. These groups didn’t create their app or safety solution on the first attempt. They worked through several iterations with feedback from others and through trial and error before finding a viable model. A STEAM Maker mindset means that teachers develop perseverance and persistence with students in the face of challenges.

STEAM learning and Making are playful approaches to learning. Tinkering and exploring with a variety of materials builds curiosity and promotes creativity. If I’ve learned one thing from observing STEAM Maker learning in schools is student engagement. When learning includes play, problem solving and collaboration, there is 100% engagement. I’ve yet to see a student sitting on the sidelines when there are circuits, motors, and tools around. So, bring creativity and playful learning into your classroom. Engage students in meaningful learning that is personalized and challenging. The STEAM Maker Movement is shifting the educational landscape. What steps will you take to become a STEAM Maker?

Written by

Jacie Maslyk, EdD has served in public education over the last 19 years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary school principal, and assistant superintendent. A successful school leader, she was recognized as a National Distinguished Principal finalist in Pennsylvania in 2013 and 2014. She served as an Editorial Advisor for the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Principal Magazine and has published a number of articles on Response to Intervention and Instruction, school leadership, the Common Core, STEAM education, and the Maker Movement. In 2015, she was awarded the Frank S. Manchester Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals (PAESSP). She is the author of STEAMMakers; Fostering Creating and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom will be available in March 2016 from Corwin Press.

Twitter: @DrJacieMaslyk

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