STEAM, STEM, and Making

What do these words mean? How are they interpreted by teachers, by administrators, by students, by politicians?


In the past few months I have been a part of a number of discussions surrounding this question. The conversations are genuine and in most cases have the best interests of students and learning in mind. There is one thing that I have noticed, there can be a wide range of perspectives and responses to these questions.


A question I was asked recently comes to mind, “How can we create a STEAM curriculum that will prepare students for the AP Physics exam?”


Perhaps it is time to break away from the idea that studying for and passing the AP Physics exam is what defines a rich and engaging inquiry based experience. Instead of asking, will a STEAM or Maker program allow my students to score well on an exam, we should be asking, how will the STEAM or Maker program foster a genuine love for investigation, for asking questions, for curiosity and engagement about the world we live in. How can infusing a hands on and open ended experience allow students to discover and attempt to manipulate their world, while learning and experiencing the over arching concepts that make up a science (or math etc.) curriculum?


We have the momentum now to alter the way that learning can take place in schools. So many are jumping on the Maker/maker bandwagon and the STEM/STEAM/STREAM acronyms are everywhere in the news. These new opportunities and ways to experience learning should remain true to the spirit in which they exist and not be diluted or changed because existing curriculum and pedagogy are being imposed upon them. It is important to have resources at hand for those interested in understanding more about the maker movement and how it is situated in pedagogy and learning theories.


Hands-on and inquiry based exploration is nothing new to education, but one could get the impression that it is a brand new idea in this data-driven, test-prep environment that most schools are deeply entrenched in. In the book “Invent to Learn Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the ClassroomMartinez, Stager (2013) the first chapter is dedicated to the history of making. It illustrates how making meaning through the exploration of materials is not a new concept but one with a rich and varied past. It is important that as educators we are aware of this history and it should inform our approaches to teaching and making in our classrooms and be a part of this current dialogue on making.


One hundred years ago John Dewey wrote of the importance of creating meaningful experiences for students from which knowledge emerges. Democracy and Education  (1916),  Experience and Education (1938). His idea that learning is social and the classroom should be a social environment where ideas and knowledge is constructed and shared as a community could be the mantra of any modern day Makerspace and for any age group.


Seymour Papert’s constructionism is also rooted in the social experience. “Important concepts are consciously engaged and public entity. Constructionism is not just learning-by-doing, but engaging reflexively and socially in the task. Both the creation process and the produced artifacts ought to be socially shared.”  A Journey into Constructivism Dougiamas, M. (1998).


But even with such a rich history of maker pedagogy, there are still so many educators who are unaware or who don’t trust the methodology or the process where children can learn without being directly and explicitly told what it is they are supposed to be learning. An excellent essay on Constructivism/Constructionism is Situating Constructionism” Seymour Papert and Idit Harel (1991). This paper goes into great detail about the nature of knowledge vs the nature of knowing. I recommend this reading as just one of many possible starting points for these discussions on STEM, STEAM, and making that are happening in so many schools and districts right now.


How can we bring to the forefront the educators who do have successful programs where students are actively engaged in this way of learning? Whose students are immersed in authentic and genuine projects that are meaningful to them? I challenge all educators who believe in the power of the maker movement to bring change to the dominant pedagogical practice of teacher disseminated knowledge and data-driven standards and testing that is so prevalent in this country right now, to create spaces for this important dialogue.


Instead of situating STEAM and making into a traditional pedagogical framework of teaching and assessment, it must remain true to the spirit of making. Within the educational environment it is important that hands-on inquiry and discovery learning reference the work and research of constructivists and constructionists that have gone before.