Looking to reinvigorate students' motivation and engagement in learning? STEAM is the answer. Like these LEGO robotics.

Learn how STEAM supports creativity and confidence

Looking to reinvigorate students' motivation and engagement in learning? STEAM is the answer.

Creativity and play are children’s work. They build confidence, encourage risk taking, and ultimately shape the soft skills young people need to negotiate school and careers.

But, as children get older, their playfulness and creative spirit wane. They aren’t so keen on trying new things and are often afraid of failing when they do.

Related content: How our school transitioned from STEM to STEAM

In a recent edWebinar, “Building STEAM Confidence and Creativity in Middle School,” educational technology experts described how enriching STEAM-based learning experiences can enhance the socio-emotional skills students need to succeed now into the future.

Creativity is what the future demands

Being creative is not just about being artistic. It also involves cleverly negotiating ideas, practices, relationships, and complex challenges. These abilities are requirements in a technologically centered workforce, explained Dr. Jenny Nash, education lead for LEGO Education North America.

She noted that the jobs of tomorrow will demand tech-savvy employees: 80 percent of available jobs will require science, technology, and math skills. But careers in STEAM fields will be difficult to secure if students can’t leap into a tech-oriented job landscape where accelerated innovation is the norm.

“The nature of STEAM,” described Nash, “is the ability to integrate a lot of ideas and pull them together in a new way. For example, in computer science, people need to decompose problems and think algorithmically. Coding involves interacting with digital representations and working with real-time data.”

Data reveal: Motivation and confidence decline

Educators should focus on helping students hone their emotional intelligence and soft skills so they can gain a foothold in a STEAM-centric workplace.

But this work won’t be easy, given students’ creativity and confidence gaps. Nash shared the results of a Harris Poll revealing that children’s motivation and confidence decreased as they get older. As a result, three out of four children lack confidence and experience anxiety that hinders learning; 47 percent say they avoid subjects they’ve failed before; 51 percent of students say trying new things at school makes them nervous.

The data also show learners’ dwindling confidence in their STEAM abilities. Only one in three educators say students are more confident in STEM subjects compared to five years ago. Fewer than one in five students are very confident when it comes to STEM learning.

Building skills the hands-on way

Nash explained that educators, parents, and other education stakeholders can provide more outlets to encourage creativity. Makerspaces–play-oriented environments that invite learners to interact physically with materials–are the solution. They can help learners navigate the stickiness of complexity. The strategy is on target, according to the Harris Poll findings:
· 95 percent of educators and 93 percent of parents believe that student confidence in STEAM subjects can increase through hands-on projects.
· 57 percent of students say they prefer hands-on experience and tools to master STEAM subjects; 87 percent tend to remember topics longer when engaged in this fashion; 89 percent say this learning approach encourages them to try new things.

Greg Kent, the technology coordinator at Kailua Elementary School and LEGO Education Master Educator, uses a variety of LEGO tools and other makerspace and team-building tools and lessons to bring “fun” to challenges while building STEAM skills.

The approach, explained Kent, reduces the pressure that comes with finding creative solutions to problems. It also demands collaborative problem solving, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and not giving up when failure is likely.

Kent prompts engagement through a “fearless versus reckless lens” by encouraging students to be willing to try anything (as long as it’s not dangerous) and then see what happens.

Promoting creativity: Effective practices

The best way for learners to negotiate STEM processes is through experimentation and iteration. Rather than following a recipe, suggested Kent, learners should explore and contextualize from their perspective as they apply concepts.

Nash and Kent offered strategies that promote authentic thinking and creativity. Most important is that whether pre-boxed or drawn from classroom stores, materials of all sorts bring play and creativity to student learning.

Manipulatives are ideal for hands-on, play-based learning, as are other physical materials of all sorts. LEGO bricks, for example, provide for seemingly infinite play opportunities that strengthen teamwork and thinking skills across subject areas.

Nash described a Six-Brick exercise (among the lesson plans LEGO Education offers) that involves student pairs—each with six bricks of the same type and size—sitting back-to-back, with one student designing something that the other can’t see. The designer shares the design steps he or she has taken with the other student, who has to create the same item based on what is being communicated by way of process. There is pressure to create using just verbal guidance, but the fun of it makes the problem solving less stressful.

Another Six-Brick activity brings together four students—each with six bricks—to individually build the tallest tower. Even though they have the same types of bricks, their structures are very different. Inevitably, there is a tumbling tower. And that’s good because they now know what won’t work and can start building again using a different method.

Design engineering and coding present myriad opportunities for hands-on learning. They allow learners to create actual physical things that demonstrate complex concepts and systems.

Kent’s students are experts at these tasks because of their work with LEGO robots, starting in the first grade. By the end of sixth grade, they begin to build and program robots. Kent explained that while students are constructing and programming, they’re also figuring out what happens with energy, unbalanced and balanced forces, and other concepts.

The best result of robotics for Kent’s students? The after-school FIRST LEGO League Team won first place in the 2019 Hawaii FIRST LEGO League State Championships. This win inspired the students to take on a new project: designing a prototype to cool classrooms.

There are also online coding programs, like app Scratch 3.0, which students can use to recognize the differences between virtual and physical coding practices.

Kent says that students should always be able to build on their voice and choice in STEAM learning. They should use tools and materials that excite them about solving a problem. That is what will make their learning meaningful, memorable, and replicable in the future.

About the presenters

Greg Kent was born and raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. He is the technology coordinator at Kailua Elementary School. He is the IT/EleMakery manager of the school and develops meaningful technology integrated units to co-teach with teachers. Greg wants to empower students to change their world.

About the host

Dr. Jenny Nash serves as the education lead for LEGO Education North America, where she provides direction and leadership in delivering meaningful education opportunities, curriculum, and professional learning for districts and schools. Previously, Jenny served as Director of Clinical Experiences and Director of Professional Development Schools at Marshall University, where she conducted STEM outreach and worked with student teacher candidates. She was also a general science teacher for middle and high school in West Virginia. She has a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Marshall University, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Florida.

Join the community

Inspire Learning & Engagement is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net where you can connect with educators who, like you, are searching for new ways to ignite and inspire learning and engagement.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by LEGO Education. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

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