This past year the Ottauquechee School raised money to undertake a cutting-edge learning program for their students. With donations from the annual Scholastic Book Fair and a Donors Choose Campaign (donorschoose.org), Rebecca Whitney, the school’s library media specialist and Principal Cathy Newton managed to create “STEAM Time” to focus on: science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Working in collaboration with the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont, dedicated STEAM learning time found its way into the little big school in Quechee.
The general idea of the program is to create the time and space for students to learn how to approach these subjects, how to work together as a group to focus on an issue, and to collaborate on ideas and resolutions. No small part of a new program in a school is finding the time for different grades to meet during the week. Students gather several times a week in the school library to work on the STEAM program, while teachers use this time to collaborate and plan their own classes.
It took dedication and a lot of work from Rebecca and Cathy to get this program up and running in the school. Rebecca speaks to the inspiration that drove the initiative when she talks about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a United Nations agenda that “emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all.” Rebecca has seen learning programs based on the goals and has fashioned the upcoming second year of STEAM learning time around a few of the goals such as “Reduce Inequality” and “Build Resilient Infrastructure.”
“I am very proud of this vision and look very forward to helping my students learn 21st-century skills through the lens of these global goals. We are global citizens and need to learn the effective communication, outside the box thinking, and empathy for others and our planet that will inspire these students to look beyond Hartford, Vermont, to thrive in the world beyond here,” she says.
Applying design thinking elements to fairy tales
During actual STEAM Time the students are engaged in harnessing and developing their critical thinking skills. Each group at their weekly meetup is guided by Stanford’s Design Thinking Elements: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These are the primary tenets of STEAM Time no matter what the subject matter. For an initial project, students used fairy tales to get familiar with the design thinking elements and their process. Familiar fairy tales were used as though they were tasks to be resolved.
The first design thinking element of empathy is accomplished with reading the chosen story and considering it from various viewpoints. From there, defining the problems presented in the story happens easily. Students then come up with ways to resolve some of those problems, such as “rehabilitate the witch in Hansel and Gretel” while another group was determined to engineer a way for Rapunzel to escape her tower. These issues and resolutions were put to the test when groups designed their ideas into working projects and presented them to other student groups.
Beyond fairy tales, the kids quickly moved into more technical subjects. December included participation in a worldwide program called the Hour of Code. Grades 2 through 5 accessed resources and interacted online with age-appropriate games and lessons designed to make the world of computer coding more fun and accessible. The kids “intuitively picked up the nuances of coding incredibly quickly!” says Rebecca.
Developing transferable skills
Design thinking, or creative problem solving, is the underlying process of enrichment taking place in the STEAM groups. The students are ultimately learning a pre-determined and reliable process to approach intimidating subject matters like robotics and math, and that design thinking applies to any subject matter. Design thinking also neatly replicates the Vermont Department of Education’s standards of “transferable skills.” These skills are a way to determine a student’s overall comprehension of the underlying elements of learning; they include effective communication, creative and practical problem solving, and integrative thinking. STEAM Time is essentially a class in learning these skills more overtly than is typically found in an elementary school setting.
This first year of STEAM was such a success that the students agreed to present at the Vermont Dynamics Landscape Conference at Champlain College in May. VITA-Learn, a Vermont State educational organization that seeks to promote information technology support to schools and students throughout Vermont sponsored the conference. Eight students, grades 3 to 5, accompanied Rebecca to Champlain College in Burlington. Rebecca says that the conference was a lot of fun and a great success; the standing room audience was packed, and it was all to hear what the kids had to say.
The students presented on their personal experiences with STEAM over the past year and what they thought about the program. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“We get to make really cool things for a benefit for the planet, or of some type of purpose.”
“Everybody has different ideas, but they’re all so good. There are so many things that we can do to help.”
“Sometimes it’s easy, but most of the time you’re challenging your initiative and your mind.”
It’s an exciting time to be a student at the Ottauquechee School. You can learn more about the program through the school blog www.oqsvt.com/ and at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Technology website www.uvm.edu/cess/tiie. This exciting STEAM development will probably continue to gain attention as more schools seek to bring such novel formats of teaching universal learning concepts, global goals, and design thinking into their classrooms. Thank Rebecca and Cathy for the amazing work done here for the Ottauquechee students and the larger world outside of our community.