October 2022: Thorpe Park hosted 10,000 students in STEAM experiences

The arts can teach STEM a thing or two

Image credit: ACS International Schools

Just as the classroom layout has changed over the decades, some educationalists are challenging the idea that the curriculum taught today should be divided into standalone subjects.

Many people feel the goal for education should not solely be the acquisition of knowledge but how to use it and how to adapt it as needs change. As well as producing well-rounded students, some believe that a blended approach can bring more meaning to all subject areas and create a more equal educational experience, regardless of ability level.

Graeme Lawrie is partnerships director at ACS International Schools. He says the subject disciplines are fading and that IT is not a separate subject any more. And that’s a good thing, as students use skills learned in one lesson in other areas. For example, if you can learn to program in Python, then you can create automated systems to process data collated in other subjects, he reasons.

“Quite often we see that kids who are learning to do 3D design on Pro-Desktop or SolidWorks, are beginning to use it for sculpture and their artwork and creating computer games using 3D modelling,” says Lawrie.

ACS organised STEAM 2022, a free-of-charge STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) event for 10,000 schoolchildren at Thorpe Park in Surrey, UK, last October. The day was intended to allow children from state schools to explore music and drama as well as building computers with real-life experiences that they may not have had access to in the classroom.

Lawrie is driven by his own school experiences both as a pupil and as a teacher of science and design technology. He describes himself as high-functioning autistic who struggled because schools were not equipped to deal with his way of thinking.

If children can learn Python while making something like an Iron Man suit or a bomb-​disposal robot, Lawrie believes they will follow more intently than in a classroom with a teacher at the front, holding up parts, saying “This is a transistor, this is a resistor”. It also means that gifted children can do more, and for those who struggle, they can do something relatively simple that still fulfils the curriculum requirements, he argues, without being made to feel they are falling behind. “They are still enjoying it, still exploring, but they are just not working at the same pace,” he says.

He thinks teachers need to acknowledge how different things are today and use that as a basis for how to approach teaching STEAM subjects. For Lawrie, teaching a particular programming language is not as important as teaching skills to adapt to change. By the time a child leaves school, he or she won’t be using the same programming language or the same syntax, he says. “But teaching the skills to be able to pick up a new piece of software and run with it without fear, that’s going to stay with them all through their lives”.

Equally, he challenges the rule that students shouldn’t have mobile phones in schools. He would rather teach them how to maximise its efficiency instead, not just as a calculator or camera but to search for information efficiently. “If you can write a simple piece of Python code and use mobile technology properly, you can do anything in half the time,” he says.

“I think of STEAM as being the glue that holds all the other subjects together,” says Lawrie. Engineering is a way for pupils to work together and independently, using problem-solving skills and empathising with other people. “When you’re engineering something, usually you are making it for somebody else. You’re looking for real needs and opportunities. You are looking at things in the world that you don’t know anything about. So, if you’ve got to design something, you’ve got to think about structures, you’ve got to think about materials. You might then work with other individuals, who are experts in those spaces ... the skills and knowledge that’s involved in STEAM, enhances every other subject area in school and in the workplace.”

However, Lawrie stresses that it’s important for teachers to be committed to this approach. “The government made a problem for itself many years ago, when they started offering golden hellos to people who took degree courses in teaching. People came into the profession who didn’t like children; they did it because they wanted to get rid of their student debt.

“You need people... who love what they do, love the subject they teach, but also love teaching children... You need that passion for teaching, and you need to have a passion for your subject content,” he insists.

Lawrie takes special delight in passing on his enthusiasm. He recalls an instance when he had taught a pupil, who had never coded before, to do something in Python, and the code was a page long. In the next lesson, they showed him how they had converted the code into three lines, asking if it would be better this way? “Being able to say ‘That’s amazing. Can you show me how that works?’ suddenly inspires them, because they know more than you, and they’re teaching you,” he explains. “There’s no better way of learning than teaching.”

Microbit Two Girls

Two girls with a microbit

Image credit: Micro:bit Educational Foundation

Gareth Stockdale, CEO of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, agrees that an interest and a passion help with teaching and learning. He says the micro:bit, which can be programmed from a mobile phone or tablet, broadens participation by helping to solve problems that are important to the student – whether that is music, art, or creating a solution for something locally, like a ‘green’ project. Micro:bit is great, he says, for tapping into people who aren’t necessarily thinking that tech is for them.

“The way the education system is set up in the UK, and other places, with high-stakes exams at 15/16, means that we narrow the focus of what we’re learning fairly early. From Year 9, people are starting to learn the GCSE syllabuses and curriculum, so there’s less ability to ‘feel’ around the subject,” he notes.

Primary schools allow more cross-curriculum study but there is still a big focus on literacy and numeracy because of SATs and league tables. “Ofsted has recently changed focus to look at the whole curriculum of a school, which provides an opportunity for a bit more exploration,” he concedes.

“But when we are talking specifically about digital creativity and coding, one of the barriers is the experience of the teachers.” Recent research found that 61 per cent of primary school teachers in the UK teaching computing have no background in the subject.

“We try and make the micro:bit as easy to get started as possible and to provide touchpoints for people to use in different areas.” It can be used as a data logger, to monitor the traffic near the school, registering a car or a lorry by pushing different buttons, for example. The data can be visualised, to satisfy elements that are in the curriculum. The coding becomes a facilitator to create, rather than a means in itself, says Stockdale.

A recent introduction is a sound wave editor, which can be used for music and physics lessons. The sound wave can be manipulated to create sound and show how changing the waveform affects the sound.

For art lessons, LEDs can be attached to create artwork from robots, wearables to light-based art installations. The micro:bit was used to create an art installation at the 2021 Leicester Light Festival, with workshops for visitors to build their own installations or light sculptures using the micro:bit.

Exam choices are influenced by many factors, and Stockdale believes there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of changing the attitudes of parents and teachers as to why these skills are foundational and why people should be studying them.

“The main barrier now is the narrowness of the curriculum and... how we broaden the skillset and support teachers to do more in a cross-curricular way,” says Stockdale.

In the US, Code.org is campaigning to get mandatory computer science taught in elementary through to high schools. In some states, it is impossible to graduate without a computer science credit, but for Stockdale this poses a conundrum. “It shows that people are becoming aware of why these skills are important, but it is also evidence of teaching computer science in quite a narrow way again. As an organisation, we are not here to make everybody a software engineer, we’re here to ensure that people understand technology better, understand the concepts that underpin it... to be comfortable with technology.” His worry is that if education is too narrow there will be a skills deficit when entering the world of work.

The foundation works closely with DATA (Design and Technology Association), which promotes the subject in schools. In the foreword to its recent ‘Reimagining D&T’ report, Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer, is very critical of the government’s knowledge-rich curriculum. He says the strategy deprioritises creative subjects and practical, skills-based education, which he says is a “profound and ignorant mistake”.

He points out that design and technology is an interdisciplinary subject which can combine maths, science, history, psychology and art. He goes on to say: “It encourages practical problem-solving, collaboration, empathy, and creativity as well as both crucial and analytical thinking. Most importantly, design and technology inspire young people to be curious, to trust their own ideas, and equips them to explore solutions to the world’s biggest problems.”


ARTS Collaboration to inspire innovation

The Power Electronics and Machines Centre (PEMC) Research Group at the University of Nottingham has appointed inventor and artist Jo Fairfax as Creative in Residence as part of its collaboration with Lakeside Arts to cultivate an environment to inspire creativity in engineers.

Fairfax’s body of work includes creating a series of automated zen garden machines. The top of the machine is a bed of iron filings which create shapes when it senses someone approaching. Magnets are activated by a mechanism operated via an Arduino Uno, programmed to move magnets under the base of the bed to create shapes imitating the movements of nature.

Head of the PEMC Research Group, Professor Pat Wheeler, says: “Having a certain level of creativity can be crucial to the advancement of our research projects, but it’s sometimes lacking. I felt enlisting an artist’s skills would provide us with the perfect opportunity to inspire innovation in the group by bringing art into an engineering context.”

Fairfax adds: “I’ve always enjoyed blending art, science, technology and engineering, so this residency is like drinking nectar for my head, heart and soul. I think that both industries are perfect companions, with potentially surprising parallels.”

James Parker, head of business development and deputy director at Lakeside Arts, believes Fairfax’s values of sustainability and the environment in public art make him a “perfect fit”. He says there are no defined outcomes for the project but believes the residency may unearth different approaches to collaboration.


Learning, not learning

Precision Acoustics sought to introduce the ‘A’ of STEAM to Sunninghill Preparatory School in Dorchester, visiting with wind instruments to demonstrate how sounds form and travel. There were demonstrations and lab experiments for older pupils explaining ultrasound for medical treatments but for Years 5 and 6, trombonist David Bell, the company’s measurement scientist, showed the children how a flute and a clarinet produce sound and how a hosepipe can become a musical instrument. Another group of children learned and then demonstrated how sound is transferred, with each pupil acting as a molecule in a chain. Feedback from the school was positive, and Bell says: “We explain why [STEM] subjects are fun... and it is good to show applications of science in real-life applications.”

At STEAM 2022, MERU, a charity which makes disability aids for very young children, brought along the components for two wheelchairs and students used STEM skills to build, engineer and program them.

Children can see the value in what they are doing, why they are learning something and using those skills to accomplish something, says Lawrie. “It doesn’t really matter what we put in front of the kids; those skills are still inherent in everything they do. Sometimes you just need to set someone a challenge and let them explore.”

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