I started my career at The Shipley School, an independent K-12 school located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, at an innovative and exciting juncture. In 2014, Shipley was starting an engineering course from scratch, and having spent several years in the industry as an engineer and several more as a math and science teacher in Philadelphia-area schools, I jumped at the opportunity to pioneer a new program as an Upper School (grades 9-12) teacher.

At the same time, Shipley was making great strides to build out its STEAM program, which is similar to a STEM program. It includes science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, but also has an added focus on the arts. A STEAM program offers a more holistic approach to education than STEM, marrying subjects that traditionally have been separate–like arts and engineering.

From formalizing plans to create a “MakerSpace” outfitted with 3-D printers to incorporating STEAM projects in classrooms across disciplines, these initiatives underscored Shipley’s mission of developing a love of learning in each student and preparing them for whatever may come beyond the confines of the classroom after high school and college.

Several years later, the STEAM program now includes courses in engineering, robotics, digital fabrication, design fabrication and computer programming, complete with our MakerSpace. The popularity of the program is evident in our enrollment numbers alone–in the first year we had 30 students on our roster. Now we have close to 100–about a quarter of all Upper School students!

So what makes Shipley’s STEAM program so great? Access to cutting-edge technology and the integration of the STEAM curriculum across the School have been integral to success, but above all else, the quality of the program is a result of the administration allowing our students to take the lead on making it their own.

3 Winning Characteristics of Our School’s STEAM Program

1. Create Room to Build

One of the greatest strengths of the STEAM program at Shipley is the MakerSpace, a joint workshop-classroom area reminiscent of the woodshop class you probably took 20 years ago but with a modern spin. Shipley Upper School students aren’t constructing wooden birdhouses though – they’re using a laser engraver, 3-D printers and a plethora of hand tools to bring their ideas to life. Whether it is a mini-golf course for digital fabrication, a guitar for Art class or water filters for Engineering, the students are utilizing the space and equipment.

When I started with Shipley, the MakerSpace was getting started in a small classroom with a 3-D printer, laser engraver and robotics supplies. Our current setup is a MakerSpace with “clean” and “dirty” working spaces. The “clean” space has a traditional classroom setup for up to 18 students, and all of our furniture is modular to suit whatever needs a class has for that day. In addition, we have expanded into an auxiliary classroom where our programming courses are taught and larger projects can be constructed.

This unique asset has opened up many doors for our Upper School students. Several clubs, such as Science Olympiad, have been able to form thanks to the accessibility of the MakerSpace. Students preparing for the Science Olympiad competition use the MakerSpace to create air trajectory machines and build balsa wood towers and an optics testing apparatus. They are able to use this space to prepare, practice and even create the materials for their competitions.

The MakerSpace, above all else, encourages creativity and problem-solving and has given the students the opportunity to learn something new outside their core curriculum and explore interests that could inform their future studies and careers.

(Next page: 2 more STEAM must-haves)

2. Focus on Collaboration and Integration

Although there is a designated STEAM faculty at Shipley, there has been a great deal of buy-in from the School community. One major goal of the program is to integrate use of the MakerSpace into other curriculums. The reason behind this is simple–the use of the MakerSpace should not end with the STEAM classes a student takes.

The STEAM faculty encourages teachers and students to make use of the MakerSpace as they would use a library. For example, two students in an art class told their teacher they wanted to build their own guitar, so STEAM teachers collaborated with the students to use the tools and guided them through completing their project.

In a statistics class, students were given an assignment to create a board game and students were able to use the laser engraver in the MakerSpace to cut their board game into a piece of wood. They used the 3-D printers to create their game board tokens. The STEAM faculty served as a resource for these students and collaborated with the statistics teacher to pull the project off.

History classes have also taken advantage of these tools to complete creative projects, like a 12-side die that had a timeline for major events in World War II laser engraved onto each side and laser engraved “gender cards” that contained facts about different groups of individuals during important time periods.

Collaboration does take time, of course. We’re in our third year of using the MakerSpace, and we have quite a few teachers across subjects integrating STEAM into their curriculums. But when teachers aren’t familiar with the technology, professional development opportunities are required to incorporate the space into unit plans.

To ensure that the MakerSpace is an effective resource for all of the Upper School students and teachers, the faculty in the STEAM department each “adopted” a machine to become familiar with so that all machinery has a point person and can be a resource for everyone at Shipley.

3. Include Student Feedback

Access to innovative technology and the integration of the STEAM curriculum across the School has played a great role in making our program best in class, but a hallmark of the STEAM program at Shipley is that the course offerings consider student needs and wants. The engineering course I teach was created because students expressed interest in a future in engineering, and Shipley met this interest with a new class offering.

Science Olympiad came about in the same way. A few students brought this club to the attention of the administration. Luckily one of our STEAM teachers was experienced with Science Olympiad and has done a great job of facilitating the club. Now it’s one of the more popular clubs in the Upper School. Oftentimes teachers and the administration will start classes, initiatives and clubs and they’ll be very popular with the students, but letting the students themselves tell you what they want to learn or do cultivates academic curiosity and an even greater love of learning.

Allowing students to take the reins with their STEAM education has also been a lesson in failure. Using the tools in the MakerSpace isn’t always easy and projects can sometimes derail over a simple mistake. Our faculty has taught students how to take a mistake in stride and learn from it. Instead of scrapping an entire project or fixing mistakes for them, we ask “how are you going to fix this?” That lesson alone could impact a student’s future even more than the project itself.

There isn’t a step-by-step guide to creating a great STEAM program in a school, but The Shipley School has created a successful model. Through our STEAM program, we have given our students a holistic approach to education by including arts in a curriculum focused traditionally on the sciences. Our students have access to a hands-on education through our MakerSpace. We’ve even integrated our STEAM curriculum into subjects across our School. However, the greatest attribute of our program is how we have let our students make it their own and given their academic interests and passions top priority throughout the entire process.

About the Author:

With a professional background in engineering, Chris Fornaro serves as The Shipley School’s STEAM department head. He recently was awarded the 2016-2017 Exemplary Teacher Award, High School Division from the Montgomery County Science Teachers Association.