Picking up STEAM
A look at the cross-functional team overseeing design thinking and STEAM learning at BSS
Girls who are going to change the world need new ways to see it. That’s why BSS asks its students to think, invent and test beyond traditional lines of inquiry. To break through limits of understanding. To discover novel solutions to baffling problems. To create blueprints for a better future.
That’s also why BSS formed a STEAM team in the fall of 2018, several years after the school first began embracing the innovation that lies at the intersection of science, technology, engineering, art and math. This dedicated group of teachers, design thinkers and technology integrators is steering the school through its second STEAM age.
“BSS girls explore and create at various intersections of STEAM subjects,” says Roark Andrade, Technology Integration Specialist. “Interdisciplinary and integrative learning has been underway for many years. With so much happening, Mary Anne Van Acker, Assistant Head, Innovation Development and Technology, established this team to both acknowledge and help expand STEAM learning.”
“We have two clear roles,” adds Ben Lawrence, Senior School computer science teacher and Design Technology Coordinator. “One is to develop a statement of what STEAM learning is at BSS. The second is to collect data on what is currently happening in the school to create a clear picture of existing approaches. After that, we can take the next step of increasing collaboration and cohesion throughout the whole school.”
“Our team’s work is one of many examples of the interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning we take at BSS,” says Grade 7 math and science teacher Taeko Knockaert. “There are good and practical reasons to separate the disciplines in education. But different areas of study also inform and even strengthen one another. When you bring them together, the girls see connections. Their learning is more meaningful and lasting.”
Jill Fisher, Junior School Design Technology Specialist, brings the design thinking process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test – into every classroom, facilitating exploration of Big Ideas through an engineering, architecture and science lens. In the Design Tech lab, the girls use that model to create different types of projects – often, one industrial and one graphic. By working with physical materials, such as paper, plasticine and Lego, girls feel confident fabricating 3D models.
“Our team’s work is one of many examples of the interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning we take at BSS.”
Students in the Middle School also engage in interdisciplinary learning. The Grade 7 timetable allows for math and science to be taught either separately or together. The girls even call the period “STEM,” not differentiating between the two. In addition, some projects involve an art and technology element, such as the GIF animations that students create on particle theory. The girls use hand sketches, design software and writing skills to express their understanding and bring it to life.
The Senior School approach is based on three precepts also evident in the earlier grades: design in everything, technology as needed, and makers not users. Design thinking is applied to redefine problems and identify innovative solutions. Technology follows need, so that students mix classic low tech options like sketching and paper prototyping with computer coding, 3D printing, design software, and laser cutters. Lastly, the girls build their own products, making them creators rather than consumers.
With the fundamental belief that some things can be better seen, understood and done when multiple lenses are applied, BSS is picking up steam on STEAM learning. And like BSS students, the team of teachers and specialists leading the way are tinkerers and inventors themselves, helping the school to see its integrative learning today and also imagine future possibilities.
How can we live in balance with nature?
One of this year’s Grade 4 Big Ideas is ecology, so Ms. Fisher is leading the students through a project that explores interrelations between humans and the environment.
The project began with work in the Design Tech lab on rocks and minerals as well as strong and stable structures, laying a foundation for a challenge to be posed later. Then, launching into their investigative research on natural and human-made materials, the girls gravitated toward the topic of natural disasters. How and why do they occur? What effects do they have on people? Having taken the lead in their learning, they were highly invested in answering these questions.
As a provocation for their chosen focus on natural disasters, the girls were presented with footage of recent flooding in Houston, Texas. With their empathy engaged, they then imagined solutions to help ease the effects of future flooding. They ideated plans and built prototypes with Lego, a material easy to take apart and reassemble. This stage of work was a practice round for the real-life challenge ahead.
“I’m building a robot to help Toronto. She’s going to plant trees everywhere because people keep cutting them down. Trees that the robot plants will help us breathe and prevent erosion.”
– Qianhao, Grade 4
That challenge began with some key questions related to their topic. How can we achieve balance in our environment? How can we address extreme weather and its impact on life in Toronto?
The girls began their investigation with some basic precepts: we want to work with nature, not against it; we want to reduce any destructive impact on us; we need to address environmental problems we have created.
Looking at issues in Toronto, students then used the lenses of ecology and balance to consider what could be managed better. Some ideas they suggested were bird collisions on skyscraper windows, city flooding (Don River, Humber River, and Union Station), electric cars, and waste reduction.
As of second term, the girls are at the stage of choosing a problem they think they can help solve. Having conducted research, settled on their topic and practised the design stages of empathize, ideate, prototype and test, they are ready for an engineering project of their choosing.
How can we create a birdhouse that will withstand the elements?
Each year, Grade 7 students are immersed in a project that involves an authentic challenge based on real-world circumstances. The details change, but the purpose remains the same – teaching students to combine their math and science knowledge and then apply it using design thinking. In the past this involved a housing project, where students built environmentally sustainable model homes. Another year they built shelters for Toronto’s feral cat population, which were actually donated to the city’s Feral Cat Coalition.
In 2018, the Grade 7 classes set out to understand what makes for an optimal birdhouse. Students learned about particle theory and heat transfer in science; in math, they focused on shapes, measurement and scale. They watched a nature documentary called “Birdnest” to understand the different materials and tactics birds use to build their nests based on their environment and needs.
“My group was able to problem solve in very creative ways when our birdhouse broke. We never gave up, even when things got bad we just kept on persisting. I was very proud of my group, because I know that we grew a lot from this experience and now we are better at grit and perseverance.”
– Maryam, Grade 8
The challenge that followed was to apply this learning to ideate, prototype and test their own birdhouses. Starting with two-dimensional drawings and then scaled three-dimensional paper models, the girls eventually worked with different materials including clay, wood, clamps, glue, drills and screws to bring their models to full size. Along the way, students learned what works in theory but not in reality, which required some quick problem solving. They also learned how to use new tools, how different materials including wood perform, how to build something strong and stable, and how to regulate temperature using colour and insulation.
Once built, the students tested their designs under a heat lamp, in a fridge and with an industrial fan. They collected data on the thermal properties of their birdhouses with thermal probes and the coding program Scratch. They learned that there were a variety of factors that contributed to the ‘winning’ birdhouse, including size, shape, material choice, thickness of material, and colour.
Overall, the students engaged in a true engineering design method to create something of use in the world. Perhaps even more important, they learned that if you can persevere through challenges and solve one problem, you have what it takes – as a thinker, scientist, mathematician, engineer, empath and creator – to tackle others.
How can we become creators of art through computer coding?
Students are familiar with augmented reality filters, such as those used by Snapchat or Instagram to transform digital images. But what can BSS girls achieve as makers rather than users of filters? And how can they express themselves in a creative way and then share their vision with an audience?
These questions led to the challenge set before Grade 11 computer science students by teacher Ben Lawrence: create an interactive webcam filter to be shown at Arts Nights and elsewhere in the school. The students’ computer programs would need to take in a live feed and then modify it to create an artistic installation and experience.
“I didn’t know technology could be so closely related to art. Even though people use computers to draw, it was really different to be creative using computer coding.”
– Janice, Grade 11
The girls began by diving into activities where they developed their own encoding schemes; discussed how data is saved, represented and transmitted; and learned about arrays (a system for computers to store data in an organized sequential manner). They then completed a practice project in which they created arrays of notes and rests that became musical rhythms and melodies. Exploring notions of what music is and how data can be encoded to create it set the stage for their culminating artistic endeavour.
By applying their understanding of binary representation of colour, pixels and arrays, students start writing code that changes the position of pixels or the colour saved in them. As a result, information gathered by a live webcam is filtered and transformed through the code. The altered images are then projected onto a large wall in a public space. At the presentation on Arts Night, audiences have their own reality augmented and projected in front of their eyes, through the lens of each student’s code.
With their creations on display, students were able to share how data, image and code create beautiful and interactive visions of the world. Even better, they felt great pride in simultaneously being artists and coders who can provoke thought and engage others with their imaginative output.
Karen Sumner, Ph.D., is co-owner of the freelance writing company Sumner & Lang.