Full STEAM ahead for Ann Arbor's Northside Elementary

You've probably heard of the STEAM fields of education, emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts and math. But Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Jeanice Swift says STEAM education isn't just about teaching those individual components.

"The way we think of STEAM is much more than the sum of its parts," Swift says. "It's getting into design thinking, innovation, creativity, all of those things, for the purpose of solving real-world life problems."

The concept of STEM education began to catch on nationwide about a decade ago as a means of better preparing young people for the high-tech jobs of the future. More recently, the concept of incorporating arts–particularly design skills and creative thinking–has increasingly caught on as well. Within the past five years, AAPS has doubled down on STEAM, incorporating elements of the approach across the district and reopening the faltering Northside Elementary as the dedicated Ann Arbor STEAM @ Northside Elementary.

The key to AAPS' approach to STEAM is not just teaching each of the five core disciplines, but blending them to create a well-rounded learning experience. STEAM @ Northside fifth-grade teacher Cindy Johengen describes her approach to teaching Revolutionary War history, STEAM style.

"All of the core curriculum is integrated," Johengen says. "So we're writing persuasive pieces, or to be even more authentic, we're writing propaganda...Everything in writing was integrated with the content. The math–yes, there were traditional math lessons, but more importantly it was integrated math lessons, like creating pie charts that showed the difference of population that was Loyalist or Patriot at the time."

Each educational unit is structured around a driving question. In the case of Johengen's Revolutionary War lessons, the driving question was "How can we as historians share the perspectives of different groups in the Revolutionary War?" The approach to answering that question is open-ended.

"The units we create are somewhat authentic in that it stems from the students' interest as it relates to the content and curriculum," says STEAM @ Northside principal Joan Fitzgibbon. "We did trebuchets and catapults in the fifth grade when they studied force and motion this year, and they might do something different when they study force and motion next year."

Although the specific activities used to teach a given topic are fluid, teachers emphasize a constant set of foundational skills. Those include communication skills, creative abilities, leadership and analytical skills. The idea is to encourage students to work in a mature, grounded and solution-oriented way from a young age. 

"Kids are really learning to think differently," Fitzgibbon says. "We talk a lot about the design process and how to make revisions to your work. Traditionally kids are like, 'Oh, I finish it and it's done. I don't want to go back and make corrections.' They're kind of engaged in that process all the time now."

Northside's experiment with implementing STEAM learning school-wide has proven hugely successful, and a major expansion to house the school's growing population is currently under construction. The school had dwindled to 180 students pre-STEAM; this year it has 415.

STEAM @ Northside is already fully booked at 550 students for next school year, when the school will welcome seventh-graders for the first time. It will increase capacity again to 725 when it becomes a K-8 school in 2016. However, it isn't the only school where Ann Arbor students can get STEAM education.

"Citizens who are just hearing about Northside, they see it as just Northside," Swift says. "But there's a lot of great STEAM learning that's going on across the district as well."

Swift uses the analogy of "sprinkle, rain, pour" for the differing intensities of STEAM application across the district. The "sprinkle" approach, implemented in all 1,200 AAPS classes, utilizes occasional STEAM philosophy. That could be as simple as a teacher using a real-world problem in an English class. The "rain" approach refers to select activities, like afterschool programs or summer camps, that immerse kids completely in STEAM learning. The "pour" approach, of course, is exemplified by Northside's school-wide implementation. Another "pour" example is Skyline High School's Design, Technology and Environmental Planning Magnet program, where students most notably applied their classwork to designing an innovative and very real-world firefighting apparatus.

And that's just the beginning for STEAM in Ann Arbor. Next school year will see the introduction of Project Lead the Way, a nationally utilized STEM curriculum program, in five Ann Arbor elementary schools.

"We want to make sure that in every part of town there is an opportunity at the elementary level for parents to choose a school where they have that rich STEAM program," Swift says. "We're going to meet the need that way, in addition to the Northside full-on approach. And then we're going to monitor over the coming eight or nine months to see if that meets that demand."

So what's the benefit to all this STEAM implementation? For one, when today's STEAM students grow up, most of them will likely also be working the STEAM way. Merri Lynn Colligan, AAPS executive director of instructional technology, references research predicting that STEM jobs will grow at nearly twice the rate of non-STEM jobs through 2018.

"The next generation is going to have STEM and STEAM skills incorporated in the majority of their opportunities, whether it be careers or college," Colligan says. "We wanted to make sure we were aiming all our students in that direction."

Johengen sums up the STEAM approach with what she tells her students on the first day of the school year: "College starts here."

"They look at me like, 'What do you mean?'" she says. "And I say, 'You have to think differently now and you have to start visualizing yourself on a college campus now.' It's that kind of modeling. They automatically start thinking about their future on a regular basis."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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