Mimio Educator

STEAM Learning via the Virtual Classroom

Posted by Melizza Cuizon on Tue, Jul 21, 2020

brain-5348699_1280_Image by chenspec from Pixabay

Although generally thought of as only possible in the physical classroom where teachers can observe and guide student exploration and interaction, STEAM learning is possible with distance teaching. How?

First, let’s get a handle on what STEAM is and what makes a great STEAM activity. There are five pillars to STEAM education: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. The push to delve into these areas is not new, yet can still be a challenge for many educators who don’t feel confident about their skills teaching these subjects. Fortunately, there are resources that practically lay out an entire unit from start to finish, including teacher guides and materials. But more on that later.

The value of STEAM education also highlights the importance of fostering 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. The students of today are digital natives – they tend to know way more about changing tech than we do, and we need to do what we can to take advantage of those skills in the classroom. How can STEAM lessons reflect the world students are living in?

To make planning less “subject”-driven and more interdisciplinary, here are some tips:

  • Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm! Look at the concepts, skills, and topics you plan to teach. Then under each, list as many ideas and questions that can be answered when studying the concept. This can (should) be done with the class so that they are as involved with the planning process as possible.
  • Make connections. Look over the smaller ideas and questions and identify connections. Group similar and overlapping ideas and decide how they can be incorporated in a unit/lessons.
  • Identify pillar possibilities. After deciding on a topic, identify the STEAM pillars that can be incorporated. For example, in a social studies unit on Native American Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, a lesson on canoes could incorporate engineering and technology – building a canoe using a 3D printer and testing if the canoe functions (floats, can carry weight, etc.).
  • Develop and do the lessons. Develop the lessons, keeping in mind that mistakes might happen and alternatives may be needed. Be prepared with alternatives if there is a change in the availability of resources.
  • Review and revise. After the lesson, reflect on what aspects of it worked and didn’t work. Think about which parts motivated your students and which parts needed modification or a complete turn in direction. Why? This will help plan future lessons and with time, you’ll be able to find the ‘sweet spot’ of student engagement and learning success.

By integrating as much as possible, students will experience learning that meets them at their levels (differentiated instruction is almost guaranteed in any lesson), and can open them up to seeing how relevant STEAM is in life. Of course, there are other ways to get over the ‘confidence’ hump when planning a STEAM activity – decide on a method of STEAM delivery. Let’s agree that a great STEAM activity is inquiry-based (starts with a question, problem, or scenario) and understand the four inquiry-based strategies:

  • Structured Inquiry -- a teacher-led experience in which the entire class works through a solution together.
  • Controlled Inquiry – the teacher presents the context, goals, ideas, and tools, and the students take them to move through the process.
  • Guided Inquiry – questions and topics are teacher-choice and students establish their own ways of walking through learning the concept and the investigation activity.
  • Free Inquiry – the students select the topic, questions, goals, and methods of investigation giving them a sense of ownership over the activity, and ultimately, their learning.

Look at that list of strategies as ‘stepping-stones’ to getting students to autonomy, giving them the responsibility to set and meet learning goals. Remember, that takes time and lots of practice. So, start with a structured approach, allowing students to ask questions, make mistakes, start over, and truly understand what a STEAM activity should look and feel like. At some point in the year, if learning is still largely taking place from home, STEAM activities can be done with or without the teacher. Students can schedule virtual meetings with peers and truly dig into those four Cs of 21st century skills mentioned earlier.

There are things to remember when having to plan for facilitating a STEAM-integrated lesson in a virtual classroom. These reminders are not unlike those that should be used for any subject-area virtual lesson.

Tips for Facilitating a STEAM Lesson in a Virtual Classroom

  • Be patient with yourself and with your students. Some things might not go as planned; this is not a new experience. Adapt and move on.
  • Have clear expectations, norms, and procedures set up so that students understand what to do, and what is required of them, for each virtual lesson session. Be consistent to maintain continuity of learning.
  • Incorporate video instruction to personalize a lesson and/or set-up the next lesson. Try to keep them simple and short. For example, do a search on YouTube for ways teachers have created video to introduce a STEAM-integrated concept.
  • When facilitating a virtual session, record it. Have these recordings available to students who missed a class or for those that need review. Recordings can also be edited into shorter bits for introductions to lessons on new concepts and skills within the unit.
  • Schedule regular virtual sessions where you serve mainly as the guide while students work in groups via breakout rooms. Jump from room to room, observing conversation and provide guidance as needed.
  • Have weekly office hours when students and/or parents can reach out for additional help or ask questions. This will help students build confidence in their learning, especially as activities become less teacher-directed.

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, you know that STEAM is important and want to incorporate more of it in your teaching. BUT, your confidence is still a bit shaky when it comes to planning an engaging and interactive lesson that your students will enjoy. As was mentioned previously, there are resources that offer a complete ‘kit’ of teacher materials including guides, student materials including assessment, and are grade-appropriate such as MyStemKits. MyStemKits are standards-aligned and include Design Challenges to step up the inquiry-based component of a STEAM activity. This complete STEAM solution is worth checking out – boxlight.com/robo.

As students gain more confidence in their inquiry skills, they will be motivated to see themselves as scientists, technicians, engineers, artists, and mathematicians. This also means you have done an incredible job getting them to this point. STEAM is possible, including within the virtual classroom environment.

Topics: STEM, STEAM, blended learning, virtual classroom, steam education, STEM education, inquiry-based learning

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