“Hi, welcome to STEAM. I’m Josh Weisgrau and I think that every problem in the world can be solved by great design. Mr. Buck, over here to my right, thinks that every problem in the world can be solved by great engineering. B.C., standing to my left, believes every problem in the world can be solved by great coding. . . All three of us are wrong. No really big problem has ever been solved by looking at it through a single lens.”
That was how we introduced the brand new STEAM program to its inaugural class on the first day of school in September, 2012. The students already knew us, but as you can probably gather, that wasn’t really the point.
As Colin wrote in the previous post on this blog, I had been working with make the previous year and only found out about the plans to start this STEAM program less than a week before the first day of classes. I signed on immediately. We spent a few lunches during that faculty in-service week discussing what we thought this program would be. We didn’t know much, but we decided on these few things:
- STEAM is not a class. “Well, what is it then?” we all asked. It meets every day during a regularly scheduled class block, so it’s not really a club; but, no tests, grades, or formal content, so it’s not really a class in the traditional sense either. We decided to refer to it as an un-course.
- Without the traditional scholastic student motivator (read: grades) we have to put all our faith in these students’ drive and intrinsic motivation. That means the direction of the course has to come from them – their passions, their skills, their insights.
- Our role as teachers in STEAM, as Colin will often point out, is not to teach the students but to “aim” them. We can point them in a direction and maybe give them a little push, but ultimately where they land is up to them.
- It has to be fun.
In order for this experiment to succeed, we knew we needed to build a culture in the classroom, a culture of analysis and action – creative problem solving coupled with rapid prototyping – an iterative, collaborative process which the design firm IDEO has popularized and publicized as a process called “design thinking.” We decided that we would show some videos of the IDEO team in action, and then present the students with a design challenge of their own.
On day two of STEAM, our team of eight students (it was always eight, although, over the first few weeks, the makeup changed slightly as some students added or dropped the un-course due to scheduling conflicts), entered the room to find one of the classroom’s chairs displayed, out of place, on top of a table.
“Do you like sitting in these chairs?” we asked. The response was unanimously negative. We asked them to take five minutes or so and try to list all the problems with the chair.
- “The front of the seat slopes down so you slide off it.”
- “No padding.”
- “The metal footrest rings break easily.”
- “No where to put your backpack.”
- They are too unstable to roll easily.”
These were a few of the many (increasingly specific) problems the students could identify. “Okay, let’s ideate. Remember: there are no bad ideas at this point. Everything is valid.”
The students began using the design thinking process that had been modeled in the IDEO video we had shown them the day before:
Keith, Colin, and I sat back for a bit. So far, so good. They were discussing chairs with backpack hooks, padded seats, even those giant rubber exercise balls you could sit on. All of a sudden, one of the students observed, that the desks were as big of a problem as the chairs. They were too tall and too long, not deep enough. It was hard to navigate the room. You couldn’t comfortably fit your work on them or your bag under them. But wait . . . “Why do we even need to sit at desks at all?” . . . “Why do we need to carry all this stuff with us?” . . . “What’s this school thing really all about, anyway?!?”
They decided to divide into two groups. The first group wanted to actively redesign the classroom we were in. The second group took a stab at rethinking the classroom and school as a whole to try to design the classroom of the future.
A couple days later, FCC-105, Buck’s Room, had a whole new layout. We had a giant whiteboard filled with notes, drawings, and concrete plans about the future of education. We discussed taking this further, but the students felt they were ready to move on . . . They were absolutely right. . .
In the coming days, weeks, months, and hopefully years, this blog will become filled with projects and reflections from the current students and teachers of STEAM and make. And, until we’ve exhausted them, we’ll continue telling our stories from the first year of this program. You can subscribe to this blog via email at the bottom of this page. We hope you’ll keep reading.