STEAM Education in a Virtual Learning Environment

Chris Lazartic

A month ago, many of us transitioned to a virtual school or work model. This may have brought significant changes to our lives, both professionally and personally. My life as an educator changed, but I was able to adapt to continue to offer quality learning experiences to my students. As the Middle School STEAM Coach at Aspen Academy, one of my roles is to teach an Innovation class to students in grades 5 - 8. Below are some tips that you can use, either as a parent or educator, to continue to inspire science, technology, engineering, art and math skills while learning outside of the traditional school building.

 

1.   Leverage activities that do not require screen time.

Obviously, people of all ages are experiencing an influx in hours spent looking at a screen these days. While some tasks will require the use of a screen, such as web-conferencing, video viewing, coding, or word-processing, some learning experiences certainly do not. STEAM activities can be a wonderful opportunity to unplug and embrace creativity! As you can see in my mini-golf project videos below, I had a blast and learned a lot with minimal screen time. There is a wealth of STEAM project ideas online; here is a link to some on Pinterest. A great thing to keep in mind when designing a STEAM project is that there really is no right or wrong way to complete it. Pick a concept and some materials, set goals and constraints (if applicable) and start designing and building! Of course, you can deepen learning with more extensive research, planning, testing, re-design, and communication, but if a child had fun creating something, then I’d say it was a success. Also, if you need some other ideas to get started, take a look at some Instant Challenges from Destination Imagination. Destination Imagination (or “D.I.”) is a creative thinking, team-based organization that challenges students with both short, instant challenges, and year-long problems. The instant challenges can be a great way to challenge your child(ren) to quickly solve problems. Here is a list of challenges created by students in Iowa. Keep in mind, the task-based challenges are often a lot of fun, but may require materials that you don’t already have available. I typically improvise or remove materials in challenges; you definitely do not have to follow the challenges exactly. Instant challenges can often evolve into more long-term, elaborate challenges, so keep that in mind if you find your child really enjoys a certain challenge.

 

2.   Meet students where they are.

STEAM projects can also be an effective way to differentiate learning for different students. While I give my students an open-ended challenge each week, I acknowledge that each student may have different interests, strengths and materials available to them. Also, it is also important in our current situation to be especially mindful of resources available to students and their families. I do not require students to order or leave their house to purchase materials, and highly recommend “creatively repurposing” items they already have at home (with permission of course!). With this in mind, I am also allowing and encouraging students to use Innovation/STEAM time to work on a “Passion Project.” Immediately, it was evident that the mini-golf challenge was interesting and inspiring for some students, but not for others. If a student does not want to complete “my” challenge, they are also allowed to “choose their own adventure.” To begin, they simply need to submit the project proposal in a S.M.A.R.T. goal format, and if I approve (which I nearly always do; sometimes some coaching is needed to further develop and stretch an idea) they may use class time to work on their project.

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Passion projects, especially when facilitated by a parent or teacher, can often become a high-level transdisciplinary STEAM project. These projects do not just incorporate one or two of the letters in S.T.E.A.M.; they can combine concepts together to create an entirely new discipline. For my class that meets several times a week, 30 minutes a day, I usually recommend 2-3 weeks for a typical project. Currently, my middle school students are working on the following projects: Create your own Sudoku puzzles, modify your electric scooter for faster speed, experiment with cooking recipes for best taste, create a carnival, and build a gymnastics practice apparatus. The key to these projects is passion. Although students have experienced success with concepts that are brand new to them, passion projects can offer an opportunity to stimulate their brain with something they truly love. While many students enjoy what school has to offer, they may not frequently have complete control like this of their projects and learning opportunities.

3.  Effectively structure and organize time for STEAM projects.

With new virtual learning schedules, it may be difficult for your child(ren) to find time to work on these projects. With that in mind, I try to give as much as my class periods as possible to my students to plan and create. I meet with them at the beginning of class to review expectations and answer questions, then turn them loose to “break away” from the computer and start building as soon as possible. However, every fourth class or so, I like to schedule presentations so that students can communicate and celebrate their progress with the class. I recommend that 75% of STEAM class time should be dedicated to actual work (planning, building, testing, evaluating, re-design) time, with the rest being available for clarifying questions, ideation/collaboration,, and presentations. If no STEAM time is made available in your school day, you can suggest that families work together to carve out a time for it in their family's schedule (if it makes sense). 20 minutes a day, or 30 minutes every other day can provide some meaningful, much-needed STEAM time for our young innovators. Then, students should be sure to “De-screen and STEAM” during each scheduled time.

 

At-Home STEAM Project Example: The Mini-Golf Challenge!

  • Objective: Build a unique and challenging mini-golf hole, or holes, at your home.
  • Basic Plan:
    • Week 1: Research - What are the qualities of an enjoyable and fun mini-golf hole? Gather Materials - What materials, surfaces and/or areas can you make use of to complete this project? Design - What do you want your hole to look like? Draw and label a sketch of your plan.
    • Week 2: Build your hole and practice, then, if possible, film yourself giving a tour of the hole and attempting it.
    • Week 3: Celebration! Each class will watch the video of everyone’s holes. Facilitate discussions about what was easy and hard. What did you learn? What would you do differently next time?

Here are some videos from the Golf Challenge we recently completed:

 


About the Author:

Chris Lazartic is Middle School STEAM Coach, Student Leadership and Entrepreneurship Coach at Aspen Academy.

Chris moved from Delaware to teach at Aspen Academy in 2010. He has a Master's Degree in Educational Leadership (University of Denver) and a Bachelor's degree in Earth Science Education, as well as his principal licensure. Chris loves that Aspen is a place that continues to inspire growth on both a personal and professional level. Outside of work, Chris can be found hiking, camping, disc golfing, skiing and traveling. Chris lives in Conifer, Colorado, with his wife, Elyse, their two dogs and horse.