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Alternative Teaching Approach Gathers STEAM

Published Jan. 22, 2013 • Last Updated 10:07 a.m., Jan. 23, 2013

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When the steam train engine was created, it reinvented the idea of transportation-travelers were able to experience the culture, ideas, and sights the country had to offer. At The Country School (TCS) in Madison, educators are challenging the "teach-to-the-test" approach through their STEAM (for science, technology, engineering, art, and math) initiative, which they believe provides a foundation for their students to be pioneers as innovative as those who created the steam engine.
STEAM is an education model brought to TCS, a private school for students from pre-school to grade 8, by Head of School Dr. Laurie Bottiger upon her arrival two years ago. STEAM breaks down the traditional barriers between different subjects and incorporates them into one diversified education all through collaboration. Students participate in bi-weekly STEAM lab classes, as well as individual STEAM projects throughout the year.
Bottinger stressed that this is not a new program; it's a way of looking at natural cross-curriculum connections. Students are always engaged in two of the five STEAM topics, if not all five at the same time.
"What we want to do is really cultivate with the kids this natural disposition they have, which is to be creative," said Bottiger. "You don't think, 'This is when I'm doing algorithms, this is when I'm on a computer, this is when I have access to charcoal and watercolor.' It's in each one of those venues you use the tools you need to use in order to accomplish the task in front of you, and that's what you do in life when you're a grown up."
Initially the acronym was STEM, but Vicki Wepler, a music teacher at TCS, approached Bottiger about adding an "A" for the arts. For Wepler, adding the arts solidified the merger of the different areas of education.
"I'm a big advocate of arts integration, so what I see this as is another venue for integrating the arts into other subject matters that have always connected. The sciences and the arts are inextricably linked and yet we've come so far away from that, traditionally speaking, in our educational system," said Wepler.
One concrete example of STEAM and the ways in which it integrates science, technology, art, and math as well as reading and writing is a project the 7th graders are doing. They read the R.J. Palacio novel Wonder, which chronicles the journey of a home-schooled boy named Augie, who has a facial deformity, through his first encounter with a public school in 5th grade. The students then created plaster casts of their faces. While doing so, they learned about the scientific method of making plaster and its uses. Then they did scientific research on an ailment using technology and incorporated the statistics-the math component-they found into an empathetic writing prompt. Afterwards, they painted the plaster masks to represent the ailment they researched.
"At the end of this experience, it'll be that this reading assignment really connected with so many different facets of life," said Stephanie Smelser, a teacher employed by TCS specifically to work on STEAM projects. "At the end of all of these STEAM projects, to me, it seems is that it's really such an overlapping or interwoven curriculum that it's hard for the kids to know what ends and what begins each subject."
Part of integrating the subject material into projects is allowing for collaboration. In Terri Hartsoe's 8th-grade physics class, students were put into groups and tasked with creating a device that would allow one teacher-instead of the five teachers currently needed-to lift a half telephone pole for a ropes course. The students took measurements and photographs, then put together a proposal for a panel of engineers. One of them would attain the "contract," helping create a real-life atmosphere and propelled them to work as a unit.
"For the most part, we don't know what kind of careers they're going to have, but [in] almost every career they have to be able to collaborate and work with other people," said Hartsoe.
The collaboration aspect of STEAM also allows for different types of "brains"-students who work better with arts than sciences and vice versa-to contribute and develop.
"It's not looking through one lens at a learner. It's helping them develop all the way around their skill sets. It's kind of a myth the idea of kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. Through brain-targeted teaching, we're trying to help teachers understand that," said Bottiger.
Welper added, "STEAM is awesome because...some kids...are engaged when they're actively pursuing something versus others that really stay focused when the teacher is up at the board. STEAM kind of encompasses all kinds of learning styles."
When STEAM shifts the focus to collaboration, supporters say it simultaneously removes it from the competition normally prevalent in many classrooms.
"In my 8th-grade class it took me five months to break down the competition-not just understand the collaboration, but live it," Hartsoe said. "The whole paradigm shift in education needs to be from 'I have to get the best grade' to 'This is a collaborative learning environment. Everybody in here has something to contribute.' The more diverse our group is the better-and the kids will say that, because the more different we are the more likely we are to have so many different ideas and opinions."
In turn, students, especially in 7th and 8th grade, learn to appreciate the diversity their peers bring to the classroom.
"For a bunch of teenagers to relish the differences rather than all want to be like everybody else is very different. We're dealing with a group of 14-year-olds sitting in my classroom who appreciate the fact that they're so different from each other rather than all trying to dress alike and act alike and be alike," said Hartsoe. "If you're in a collaborative learning environment with people that are all invested in each other's learning, than everybody respects everybody. A lot of bullying is people trying to be alike and when you value differences and the different opinions that are around the table, that's lessened a lot."
As a result of students working together, teachers find themselves acting similarly.
Curriculum Director Pam Glasser said, "My very favorite thing is the teacher collaboration, because we have the teachers coming together all collaborating on these incredibly rich projects...They're learning from each other and adding onto each other's idea, just like we ask the kids to do."
Some of the criticism aimed at STEAM centers around the idea that it does not prepare students for a world of standardized testing and may not teach students anything concrete. Those at TCS, however, challenge the notion that the idea of "teaching to the test" is what education should be focused on.
"Should you need to give them an assessment, whether it's a standardized test or a different way of testing their learning, you get to say, 'We just did that project. What did you learn from it?' They're able to share so much with you that will apply inevitably to a test or a standard," said Wepler.
Bottiger said, "It shifts pedagogically away from getting a right answer to why is that a good answer? So that can sometimes be frustrating for some of the older kids until they get used to it and they become empowered, because they're like, 'Wow. That's a really cool voice that I have.' For the grownups, they need to see it in action and then they fall in love with it. It's 'seeing is believing' because it's not a textbook. It's not a curriculum. It's how we go about having kids make the connections across curriculums and apply those skills."
The Country School will be holding a day for those interested in learning about STEAM on April 6 for students in grades 2 through 6 and their families. Space will be limited to 60 students. Interested participants should feel free to email"> or call 203-421-3113 with questions.

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