Dedicated STREAM Programming

This fall, Community School Elementary students were introduced to a new, weekly academic period dedicated to STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts and Architecture, and Math). During one period each week, students gather with Elementary School science teacher Bob Polk, Elementary and Middle School art teacher Cara Frost, and educational technology teacher Meghan Gunn for a dedicated STREAM period. This class time, which is in addition to tech integration, art, and other specialist classes that are already part of their weekly schedule, allows students to explore, collaborate, create, and innovate with three faculty members who each bring a unique perspective and expertise, offering a rich, multi-disciplinary experience.

Here, Meghan Gunn and Bob Polk (Cara Frost was on maternity leave) offer insight into how they are implementing dedicated STREAM programming with Elementary School classes this year.

How does the new, dedicated STREAM programming differ from how Community School has incorporated these subjects in the past?  

Bob Polk (BP): What’s interesting is that students have actually always participated in this kind of learning at Community School—there has always been multi-disciplinary, place-based, and project-based learning here. As a science teacher, the stream-side setting and collaborative approach has meant that I have worked this way with students for years; now, by incorporating more aesthetics and design and engineering from our art and technology departments, this class is able to further build on that tradition. We are supporting values we’ve always had; but now, as faculty, we are being supported to engage in this way of teaching and learning in new, purposeful, and formalized way.

Meghan Gunn (MG): This dedicated class period is unique in that there are three of us working with students, allowing not only the integration of multiple points of view and expertise, but close, one-on-one interaction with the students. 

Can you describe a project or topic that students are pursuing through the STREAM class curriculum this year?

BP: Bridges have been an Elementary School science topic for years; I had had many conversations with Cara about how bridge design and aesthetics are stunning and about the role of  artists in that process. As we started planning curriculum for STREAM, those conversations evolved to a discussion about how bridges can also be metaphor for people coming together or getting from here to there—they build community. Bridges are ultimately far more than a way to get from one place to another. The many layers of this one topic make it ideal for a STREAM class.

We introduced those conversations we were having as teachers to the students, moving from discussions of practical aesthetics to metaphorical bridges and asking students to think of examples of bridges in their lives and our landscape. We asked: "Where do you see bridges?"  "Could telephone wires be bridges" "How about bones?" These were seemingly abstract concepts, but the students started to understand the many different “bridges” around them. From there, we worked with students to come up with plans for bridges and then constructed prototypes of different iterations and designs of bridges with various materials--from nature, from the kitchen. That process allows students to learn, among other things, that sometimes the first build might not work. If the design fails, we move on to explore how to re-engineer the bridge to make it better.

MG: Throughout the design and construction phases, we also documented the process. First through third graders created stop-motion videos, and we were able to review and discuss how to improve the design and get a new perspective on the process. 

What do you observe about how kids learn through STREAM programming that is unique to this approach?

MG: Often, kids who might not perform well in a standard classroom setting succeed in this type of environment because they have the freedom  to invent and build, to engage in learning in a different way. We want to make the most of that by exploring the STREAM acronym fully, to integrate science, robotics, art and design, engineering, and math in many different ways so that we can tap into as many learning styles and strengths among students as possible.

BP: The STREAM curriculum leverages kids’ natural curiosity, their natural inclination to learn through play, and their creative energies. It’s like a brain playground. Kids can be valued for whatever unique talents they bring to each project. We’re also able to reiterate really key lessons that they can use across their academic lives: the importance of planning and prototyping and that failure is always an option—but can teach us important things.

What inspires you, as teachers, when you engage kids in this way?

MG: The students are excited to come back and keep working each time they walk in the door, and there are students who are taking these ideas home and working on their own, which is great.

BP: Really, we’re just getting excited, and we’re excited to see how the class evolves. It’s an exploration, led by central questions: Are they engaged? Are they creating? Are they thinking in practical terms about what they are creating? Are they collaborating, debriefing and processing the experience? At the end of the day, it’s not about a product; it’s about the process, wherein we are hoping kids will think about things in a new way and be intrinsically motivated to be engaged in that process and be excited to try to new things.