Jacie Maslyk | December 2019

Tis’ the Season for STEAM Learning

One of the great things about STEAM education is that it can look different in every school or classroom. You can implement it all year long.  Effective STEAM learning is often aligned to standards and can be directly embedded into the curriculum… But all STEAM learning doesn’t have to be formal.  Educators can design a variety of STEAM learning experiences to engage students during every season.

The integration of science, technology, engineering, art, and math can be fostered through informal learning experiences at museums or science centers.  You can enhance it through after school programs or even clubs.  One informal option that has been successful within my school district has been through design challenges.  We hold these quarterly events school-wide so that all students have the opportunity to participate. Not only does it promote active involvement in STEAM learning but it also builds on collaboration skills that fit into our system-wide focus on positive behavior in the school district.

Building STEAM

Led by a committee of educators, our team planned four different challenges over the course of the school year.  Within their homerooms, middle school students were presented with engineering challenges.   Armed with a variety of recyclable materials from our makerspace and simple items from our school supply closet, learners engaged in small group design challenges that would call upon their creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. 

From engineering mechanical traps to catch a wild turkey or designing contraptions to deter pests from inhabiting our school garden, students have responded to the STEAM-related challenges by utilizing their knowledge of science and math content and accessing their creative problem-solving abilities to come up with imaginative solutions.  These hands-on opportunities may not be a part of a formal lesson. But they offer students the chance to collaborate and develop STEAM skills.

Building things can engage learners of all ages, giving them exposure to hands-on materials and unique experiences.  Michelle Simmons offers additional ways to use construction, careers, and other connections in her post Building STEAM.  

Winter Blues

While these challenges could be implemented at any time of year, winter is a great time to embrace this type of active learning.  During these months when the holidays have our students hyped up and the winter weather may have them stuck inside, design challenges provide a fun, hands-on way to get learners actively engaged.  Challenges might also embrace a winter or holiday theme creating a festive vibe for students. Here are three ways to break out of the winter blues and incorporate STEAM into any classroom.

  1. Connect to a holiday story.

Think about your favorite winter read-aloud selections. Consider how you can use them as a lead-in to STEAM learning experiences.  Stories like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats or The Mitten by Jan Brett offer artistic opportunities for students to engage in creating images similar to the ones the illustrators created in the story.  Books like Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner can also provide connections to science concepts tying in weather, animals, and habitats as related areas of study.  Or take a look at Lois Ehlert’s Snowballs which uses everyday objects to adorn the snowman character.  With great pictures and embedded opportunities for creation, this book is a great choice for a winter interactive read-aloud.

  1. Embrace annual favorites

There are so many holiday movies and specials that your students look forward to watching every year.  While I’m not advocating that we spend our instructional time watching them, I do think we can use them to spark some innovative thinking for our STEAM challenges. 

Let’s take the Grinch, for example,  We all know his story. He steals all the toys from Whoville and then struggles to get his sled back up the side of Mt. Crumpit.  Use this problem as a design challenge for students. How might we design a sled that can handle the heavy load? Can we design a gadget or enhancement that will help the Grinch?  Or might we ask the students to design a deterrent that will prevent the Grinch from accessing all the presents, to begin with? 

We can connect STEAM learning with well-known holiday specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. With those iconic characters in mind, students can test their knowledge of circuits with different paper projects like these from Makerspaces.com.   Using coin cell batteries, copper tape, and mini LEDs, students can make Rudolph’s nose light up or Frosty’s hat glow.  

  1. Find the STEAM in a winter wonderland

You might not realize it but you can find science, technology, engineering, art, and math throughout a snowy and cold environment.  Look for the symmetry in snowflakes and explore their designs. Take a look at some great resources for some STEAM snowflake projects.  Explore the properties of matter in water, snow, and ice by conducting hands-on experiments.  Or try using low cost or recyclable materials to engage in some winter STEM challenges. Build an igloo with marshmallows.  Or take it large scale and build a life-size structure with gallon milk jugs.  It doesn’t matter which approach you choose to take. Your students will enjoy the opportunity to create and build when the learning focuses on this exciting time of year!

Meaningful, integrated learning experiences can happen all year long.  We can get students actively involved in learning that embraces the arts and builds an understanding of STEAM content in fun and creative ways.  Whether connecting to a holiday story or embracing an annual favorite, look for new ways to incorporate STEAM learning during this holiday season.

About the Author

Jacie Maslyk, EdD has served in public education over the last 22 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 school leadership, literacy, 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 STEAM Makers; Fostering Creating and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom (2016) which focuses on the stories of early STEAM and Maker implementation in schools. She moderates the monthly #STEAMMakerChat inspired by the topics in the book. Jacie is also the author of the ISTE book Connect to Lead: Power Up Your Learning Network to Move Your School Forward (2019) and the upcoming book Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning (2019).  Jacie consults with school districts across the country and has presented nationally and internationally.