Full STEAM Ahead!
When people ask me about the design classes that I teach, or the STEAM programme (a transdisciplinary programme that encompasses Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts and Math), I like to share a favourite story about the Tuskegee Institute. If you don’t know about the Tuskegee Institute, it was a historically black university - one of the first - founded in the late 1800’s by Booker T. Washington in the state of Alabama and boasted George Washington Carver among its prestigious instructors. The university was established on land that had once been a plantation. The first course that they taught was masonry. Why masonry? There were no buildings on the land when they started. The students, quite literally, built the school.
This story somehow left an impression on me professionally and has influenced a lot of what I do in the classroom. On my very first day of teaching, for example, for the very first lesson I ever taught, I remember dragging all of the furniture out of the room and into the hallway. My grade one students’ first task would be to figure out how they wanted their classroom to look. I wanted it to be their classroom. After every couple of months, we would have a discussion about how it was working, then we would drag everything out into the hallway and start again.
Here at TK, we’ve worked hard to ramp up our design programme these past two years. We’ve incorporated a lot of new equipment, from drill presses and scroll saws to DSLR cameras, 3D printers and LEGO robots. Our students have played a very central role in how this has come together. With their own hands and sweat, they have helped to transform the learning space into something more conducive to the sorts of projects they wanted to do. They helped to build workbenches so that we could do some woodworking with real tools. They helped build different work tables with storage so that we had a place to put our projects. We have been slowly replacing the furniture that the school purchased with our own creations. At each step, we discuss what we need. We use 3D modelling software to design the space and the furniture to simulate how it will look in the room when it’s finished. We learn the basics of technical drawing so that we can draw up the plans. We learn to use a range of powered and hand tools safely in order to complete our projects.
What we are doing is not new… at least not to some of us. Perhaps we grew up with a basement full of tools. My dad and his brothers made soap-box derby cars together in the garage. My grandfather and I made crystal radios from cereal boxes. We learnt other skills from tinkering around at home as well. Maybe we learnt to cook together with our parents in the kitchen. Or we learnt to sew when Baby Bear got a tear.
Many of our students have not grown up in households with opportunities to tinker or even do many things for themselves. And it’s amazing to see how excited they get when they do get to work with their hands. I sometimes have a lineup of students that want to come in at lunchtime to help tear apart wooden pallets with a pry-bar. When learning so often happens in the abstract, it can be very empowering for students to see their efforts lead to an actual product - especially when it’s a product that has genuine value to real people. Imagine how they feel when they can walk around school and see something that they made that was a real contribution to school environment, thing that makes someone’s life easier. Even as I am writing this, I have a group of students building a bench for our ECE students so that they have some place to sit when they are taking off their shoes. That bench should still be here for years to come.
The design and STEAM programmes provide students with opportunities to engage in hands on learning activities where they have ownership to solve authentic problems and to build the school that meets their needs… I hope you are as excited as we are!