Illinois educators ‘STEAM It Up’ at NIU professional development day

STEAM It Up marshmallowTeams of educators from across Illinois generated their own steam Aug. 3 at Northern Illinois University, doing something most of them probably hadn’t done for decades: racing against time to build model bridges out of pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and other classroom supplies.

As the timer ticked down, cries of “more glue!” and “that won’t hold weight!” echoed across the auditorium. Construction continued at a frantic pace right up to the final buzzer.

An energetic competition provided the perfect opening activity for the inaugural offering of “STEAMing It Up,” a new symposium on how teachers can make their classrooms more engaging by integrating the STEAM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – into their curricula.

The symposium, which was organized and hosted by NIU’s innovative Center for P-20 Engagement, began with the keynote address by Tim Farquer, superintendent of Williamsfield School District 201. Farquer shared his own inspiring experiences using STEAM to encourage interdisciplinary thinking, foster creativity and help students relate classroom material to their lives outside of school.

Students in Williamsfield schools have started a hydroponic garden that produces food for the cafeteria, designed websites for local companies, and researched sustainability proposals that were implemented in their classrooms and school buildings. Each of those initiatives drew on skills from across the STEAM spectrum, including critical thinking and experimental problem solving.

“It’s all about kids learning how to make plans that really work,” Farquer said. “A lot of the tools and themes are the same no matter if the subject is art or science. And lots of the best projects involve elements of both.”

Farquer also noted that STEAM projects fit perfectly with all the latest state and federal educational standards, which call for self-directed, interdisciplinary thinking. Throughout his speech, audience members were nodding and murmuring their agreement.

After the keynote, attendees chose breakout sessions on specific tools for bringing STEAM to the classroom.

In “Engineering is Elementary,” NIU STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert talked about how young elementary school students can learn the fundamental engineering design cycle. At “Robot Boot Camp,” teachers used that cycle themselves, writing programs to control the movements of LEGO robots. For an hour they became students again, letting out groans of disappointment when their creations failed to do what they wanted – and cheering when the robots started lumbering around the room.

Two sessions focused on the power of reading and writing fiction to help kids connect with STEAM concepts in new ways. Two sessions described how to get kids excited by offering STEAM projects that relate to their lives and communities. Others introduced teachers to technology for creating science-related artwork, making dynamic digital presentations and playing STEAM-themed games.

Over lunch, attendees talked excitedly about what they had learned.

Kathleen Regin, a fourth-grade teacher at the St. Isaac Jogues school in Hinsdale, was particularly excited by the reading and writing sessions, “STEAMing Up Reading and Writing” and “Set Phasers to Phun! Using Sci-Fi to teach Sci Facts.” She appreciated how each novel that was mentioned was accompanied by a host of related material available for free on the STEM Read website. “That makes it so much easier to get started, “she said. “It’s very useful.”

NIU STEM Outreach graduate assistant Erin Spencer
NIU STEM Outreach graduate assistant Erin Spencer

Kim Anderson, a youth education associate at the Gail Borden library in Elgin, was already looking forward to getting back to work and installing a customizable online game platform called Kahoot on the library’s computers. “Kids love games, and Kahoot will let us make those games as educational as possible,” Anderson said. “Maybe we can even have them program their own.”

The day ended with a panel discussion in which four attendees with recent experiences in launching STEAM programming shared their successes and lessons learned. The panelists agreed on the importance of project-based learning opportunities that let kids find their own solutions through trial-and-error.

Mike Jones, a junior high science teacher from Bloomington, agreed that STEAM integration is the best way to prepare students for the majors and careers of the future. In addition to teaching seventh-graders, he also serves as a mentor for a Bloomington High School STEM Program funded by State Farm Insurance.

“They know what their business is going to need down the line, and they’re trying to build the next generation of creative coders,” he said. “It feels a little like the space race in the ’60s, only now it’s the STEAM race.”

Kristin Brynteson, assistant director of the P-20 Center, planned the day as a way to help educators get new ideas that would help them jump-start creative thinking in their classrooms at the start of the school year

“The day was a great success,” Brynteson said. “STEM and STEAM are getting more and more important, so it was fantastic to see so many educators hungry for new tools and new ways to inspire learners.”

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