A child working with Legos in STEAM class
For Teachers

Characteristics of a Great STEAM Program

By Nicole Mace, MEd October 30, 2018

Now, more than ever, teachers are required to prepare students with the skills needed to be successful in a 21st-century workforce. The STEAM framework empowers educators to implement project-based learning across science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Many schools and entire districts have come to value the skills and knowledge associated with this type of interdisciplinary learning, providing opportunities for students and teachers to collaborate and engage in innovative ways.

STEAM programs vary from school to school. Some schools develop a complete STEAM curriculum that adheres to their learning objectives. Other schools encourage STEAM-based lessons but don’t have set requirements or expectations. Regardless of where your school is on the STEAM spectrum, here are four characteristics of a great STEAM program to check off your list or to start working toward.

Quality teacher support

Whether your school holds ambitious dreams of fully integrating STEAM across all courses or simply creating STEAM learning opportunities wherever possible, the focus should be on ensuring that all students are exposed to the benefits of STEAM. But that can only be accomplished if teachers are given the resources and support that they need.

Teachers who are new to STEAM may think developing a STEAM project means adding a coloring component to a math assignment or using tablets to complete a science worksheet. But STEAM is all about connecting the dots, using both creativity and logic, soft skills, and technical skills. Making science, technology, engineering, and math more visual and creative leads students to see connections and expand their thinking vs. compartmentalizing each subject. It also shows students how versatile and valuable the arts are, and the many ways in which artistic skills are utilized in different technical professions. Developing STEAM projects requires much more thought. A great STEAM program must include the needed STEAM training to support teachers in seeing the possibilities of true STEAM integration.

Regardless of what your program’s integration goals are, a successful STEAM program includes dedicated time for educators to tinker and collaborate on a regular basis. Through this devoted collaboration time, you’ll often find that enthusiastic educators seem to spread innovation. Quality teacher support empowers those educators to inspire the whole team by building in designated times where they can develop programmatic goals, collaborate, share resources, and discuss challenges and progress made. 

A space for making

A great STEAM program has a space devoted to making, often referred to as a makerspace. The makerspace movement is a combination of constructivism meets inquiry-based learning. It’s more than a space; it’s a mindset. Makerspaces are focused on turning a generation of technology consumers into creators, developers, and innovators. It’s a welcoming space accessible to all learners where students come to experiment, invent, try, fail, and try again. It’s often colorful and full of different manipulatives, technology, and tools.

Unlike traditional school-wide programs, a great STEAM program understands the importance of disrupting the traditional educational environment. There does not need to be strict uniformity for every student using the space. This is a space for students to act on their own curiosities, learn independently and in small groups, and feel a sense of ownership.

It’s easy to create a makerspace on a budget and the options are endless. STEAM makerspaces provide many benefits. They encourage a maker mindset and help students focus on personal growth.

Check out this video clip to discover seven secrets to a great makerspace, brought to you by WeAreTeachers, the Faubion School in Portland, Oregon, and Concordia University-Portland’s College of Education.

Solving real problems

What’s more empowering than creating solutions to real-world issues? When students learn about local and global issues and then try to come up with possible solutions, they become independent thinkers and change makers. Whether they are designing a safer playground or building tools to address sustainability and food insecurity, their investment in the learning process often skyrockets.

Real problems provide rich learning opportunities since students must conduct research, hypothesize, create, test, analyze, revise, and synthesize. A great STEAM program brings the outside world into the classroom and challenges students to think critically, benefitting them as learners and as future professionals.

In need of ideas for real-world problems that your students can solve through STEAM?

Here are a few places to start:

Valued student feedback

A long-lasting, successful STEAM program asks learners for honest, constructive feedback. By asking students to participate in anonymous surveys and/or polls, teachers are able to know what’s really working and what isn’t. We may think we know, but student insight really helps us see what the learning experience is like and it helps us keep their needs, interests, and backgrounds in mind. From coding to space exploration, genetically modified food to innovative aircraft designs, STEAM learning opportunities are endless. But the why behind what teachers and schools decide to focus on should always be clear. The reasoning behind a STEAM lesson plan or school-wide project should always be tied to student engagement, specific, measurable learning objectives, and larger programmatic goals.

It’s also crucial to consider how you are making your STEAM lessons and projects accessible to all students, including English learners, students with learning differences, and those with special needs. Check in with students and their families to ensure that equal opportunities abound and that needed support structures are provided. Using student feedback during and after each STEAM activity will strengthen your STEAM program, one project at a time.

For more tips, please read our STEAM teaching resource page.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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