STEAM at FCS is on a roll. Last year culminated in a national prize and a trip to Disney World — and somehow things have only gotten better since then. With all of this forward momentum, the STEAM team is hoping to pause for a moment and focus on our values and our goals long enough to write them down plainly. And as we do that, I thought I would take this chance to take a look back at where we’ve been in order to appreciate where we are now. The following whirlwind tour is my version of STEAM’s beginnings at FCS:
“Is this a class?”
In my first year of teaching at FCS (2010-2011), there were four students taking Computer Science. When you start that small, you only have room to grow… right? A big part of my mission in that first year was to grow the Computer Science program, to make it more inclusive, and to expand access to Computer Science to those who didn’t see themselves fitting in to the field. But for my few students in that first year who didn’t see the big picture of a Computer Science program, the best they could do was repeat themselves as they told friends who interrupted us in the nearly-empty Computer Lab: “Yes, this is a class.”
“How about a club?”
Part of the way through the school year I asked the Curriculum Committee for support and guidance as I tried to rejuvenate the CS program. Recognizing how hard it is for Upper School students to take elective courses in their tightly packed schedules, The Chair of the Math department, Bill Darling, suggested that I start a club to help kindle students’ interest outside of the classroom. It took a while to settle on the name — “The Club for People Who Like Making Stuff” and “Creative” were two ironically uncreative front-runners — but I ended up plagiarizing the name “The Hacktory” and I started the club in the fall of the next year.
It’s all in the name
Well, that didn’t work. The club started, and a handful of devoted students came to the Mac Lab to hack away on their own computer projects… but I was preaching to the choir. “The Hacktory” only attracted boys who self-identified as programmers and computer geeks. Although the club experiment outside of the classroom was lukewarm at best, Computer Science in the classroom started to heat up. The Computer Science elective ballooned to 12 students in my second year and we added an introductory Computer Science class to the rotation courses in both 7th and 9th grades.
In the winter of that year Josh Weisgrau, whose classroom the Hacktory was occupying once or twice per week, helped rebrand the club to become make. A new name, a new logo, and a new interdisciplinary project helped get things off the ground: with the support of Chris McCann in the Math department and Keith Buckingham in the Physics department, we raised the funds to buy a kit to build our own 3D printer. make had new life by the spring.
Cicero, a robot, an alum, and a dinner
I looked up to Keith as a mentor and had the chance to get to know him through the course of the year because I taught my Latin class in his Physics classroom. But collaborating on the 3D printer opened our eyes to the ways we could collaborate as Physics and Computer Science teachers. While we both supported a senior project that spring (one of my Latin students working on a robotics project), we agreed to meet up a few times over the summer and explore ways to run an informal “Physics 3” elective for advanced seniors interested in robotics the next year. He would help build the robots; I would help program them. By June we agreed to call it “STEM.”
While we were brainstorming projects for STEM at Starbucks in July, Keith mentioned the name of a young woman he taught years ago in a Physics class. I Googled her name while we sipped coffee and tried not to choke with my surprise: it turned out that AnnMarie Paulsenberg was now AnnMarie Thomas, the Executive Director of the Maker Education Initiative. STEM quickly became STEAM and what had previously been our own enthusiasm suddenly felt like part of a movement.
At the back-to-school dinner for faculty that September, I sat next to Josh to talk about our summers and pick his brain about continuing the momentum started by the 3D printer. I asked him for advice on an opening activity for the STEAM group but instead of answering he responded with a question of his own: “When does STEAM meet?” It was the best reply he could have offered.
Full STEAM ahead
The 2012-2013 year started with Computer Science classes in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades and two levels of elective classes running for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. STEAM had 3 teachers, 8 students, no expectations, and a whole lot of enthusiasm. make started the year by meeting once per week and by October the group was meeting twice per week. The year was off to a thrilling start… and even a year later, the pace hasn’t slowed down yet.