When Strathcona Girls Grammar in Melbourne decided to redo their STEAM program they took the opportunity to rebuild it completely. They did it well, STEAM teaching is now almost seamlessly integrated with the curriculum, the students are getting an early grounding in design thinking while sharpening their tech skills and the program has also managed to win international acclaim.
Teachers Michelle Dennis and Eleni Kyritsis were tasked with the project. Both are committed to technology education, Dennis is Head of Digital Learning and Innovation and her influence is felt through the school’s entire technology teaching effort while Junior School Curriculum and Innovation Teacher Kyritsis is a former Australian Educator of the Year who is heavily involved with Google Education.
The STEAM program they came up with was good enough to win them an award at the Edutech Asia conference this month, which had over 300 entrants from across the region.
Dennis and Kyritsis started at Strathcona at the same time last year, “We were able to look at the Strathcona program with fresh eyes and that meant we were able to come up with a whole school approach to STEAM using design thinking.
“We think it's really important that we use the same tools, the same language across every class and every teacher, so rather than running siloed programs that are only happen in one year or the other, the tinker train has established a set process, a set language that every teacher is familiar with so that STEAM can go into any classroom,” Dennis says.
Technology teaching sits within or just next to the junior and senior curriculum at the school, it is presented as a fun way to explore further what has been introduced in class and for the kids to develop their tech skills while they’re at it.
The students are encouraged to use the Tinker Train design thinking process which is based on the Stanford d.school’s thinking. Stanford d.school is Stanford University’s creative innovation and collaboration centre, it is big on design thinking and encourages the use of a process to solve issues around innovation by talking, collaborating and thinking within a framework.
“It was about being in the right time and place, we knew Strathcona needed something to unite STEAM because there are a lot of great ideas happening and so we sat down to purposely create something that we thought would work across ages.
Strathcona’s Tinker Train instils the habit of using a design thinking process early, the students learn to break down the innovative and creative process into steps and apply it naturally.
Students form the habit of first understanding a subject or issue, identifying and expressing an issue and its solvability, generating a broad range of ideas or ideating, creating their solution and then sharing their ideas and their design process. Done well, it is very powerful.
“In junior school we do the Tinker Train as part of their normal units of study, we look at places where it comes in naturally. So, for example they might be doing the Goldfields as part of History Units in Year 5 and then we bring the Tinker Train in to use the design process to encourage students to engage in deeper learning.
“Students create things, which means that they start pushing beyond the curriculum, they start going beyond what they were meant to do and start asking really big questions. For example, with the Goldfields they recreated it in in Minecraft, in Year 1 and 2 they were looking at living creatures and then we used the Nintendo Labos to create their own living creatures for an environment.”
Students explored the idea of why an animal lives in a particular environment and for what reason. The students also turned it around and asked; if we have this environment what kind of creatures would you be able to see there? Then they created an original animal themselves.
“They are very creative in Years 1 and 2, there were some slithering dogs developed and the students were able to talk about why they would be suitable for their environment,” Dennis says.
They have also put a lot of thought into how best to train teachers to deliver the program. Dennis says that the best way of approaching PD is through co-teaching, “You can run PD session after school and we do that, the problem is a lot of teachers don't have time to actually apply it and they might not have the confidence to apply it with students.
“Eleni [Kretsis] and I will join a class and work with the teacher and the students, training both at the same time. Then we’re slow releasing so the teacher takes more and more control so that the next time they run that unit it’s all on them.
“The Years 7s and 8s are running #coLAB at the moment, I have a team of eight other teachers on it, none of them are digital technology teachers but all have the right mindset, they are open to learning and are really good at encouraging the kids to be good problem solvers.
“All of those teachers, from Art, English, Physics, Mathematics and Humanities, come to do robotics with minimal pre-instruction, they’re learning alongside the kids and then modelling how you solve big problems,” Dennis says.
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