New educational approach is STEAMing up

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In education, buzzwords and acronyms are commonplace, sometimes making school-board meetings seem as if they are spoken in a foreign language. But there is a new buzzword taking hold. Locally, it is getting parents, teachers and students excited and driving the opening of a new school. And it too is an acronym – STEAM.

Jerrick Tsosie, 19, demonstrates his robot April 12 at the STEAM-Maker Expo in Blanding, Utah. Tsosie had high hopes his robot would do well at a competition in California later that month. Photo by Shannon Livick

Jerrick Tsosie, 19, demonstrates his robot April 12 at the STEAM-Maker Expo in Blanding, Utah. Tsosie had high hopes his robot would do well at a competition in California later that month. Photo by Shannon Livick

It stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math and so far, the momentum of the initiative to bring more of those five elements into education is heating up.

“We do see a lot of STEAM initiatives happening,” said Ed Larson, with the Utah State University Blanding Campus.

Together, Larson and Georgiana Simpson, also with USU-Blanding, put on a STEAM-Maker Expo on the campus April 11 and 12 that drew hundreds and hundreds of people to the small Utah campus.

The main attraction was keynote speaker Dr. Frank Morgan, Atwell Professor of Mathematics at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Rolajuwon Clark with Utah State University-Eastern Blanding Campus examines how bubbles come together during the STEAM-Maker Expo. Photo by Shannon Livick

Rolajuwon Clark with Utah State University-Eastern Blanding Campus examines how bubbles come together during the STEAM-Maker Expo. Photo by Shannon Livick

Morgan awed the crowd of over 100 adults and children with the mathematics of bubbles.

“I specialize in the mathematics of minimal surfaces,” he said. “That is just a fancy way of saying, we get to play with bubbles.”

It turns out, mathematicians take bubbles very seriously. Bubbles can put out fires, have great acoustic properties and are very predictable.

And when two bubbles come together, you get the most efficient shape in mathematics, a theorem that wasn’t published until 2002.

“Nothing beats the standard double bubble,” Morgan told the crowd, while blowing two bubbles and joining them together.

And this is where the crowd was on the edge of their seats as Morgan explained the details of the mathematics to determine just how the double bubble is so efficient.

“Every little bit of mathematics you can learn and remember will make you better in life,” Morgan said. “With math, you can do anything.”

For example, Morgan explained that bubbles are so predictable, they always come together at 120-degree angles or occasionally 109-degree angles.

But, he explained, mathematicians only recently discovered the math behind bubbles and believes that the research is boundless.

“If we want to understand the universe, the way to it is to understand soap bubbles,” he explained.

In the audience, 19-year-old Jerrick Tsosie smiled. He loves math and engineering and, after Morgan was done talking, he demonstrated a robot he’d designed. He was readying the robot for a competition in Los Angeles.

He was thrilled to see so many people at the STEAM-Maker Expo. In fact, Tsosie is writing a paper on the sudden popularity of STEAM and its importance in boosting education in the United States.

“In math, we are ranked globally at number 28 and in science we rank 30,” he said. “We need more engineers, researchers and scientists.”

Tsosie says building robots keeps him interested in school and he hopes STEAM will help others engage in education, when standardized testing and Common Core have become commonplace.

“I really like it. It keeps you thinking and busy,” he said of building robots.

Tsosie said all schools could use more STEAM.

“It teaches kids a lot about thinking critically. We need to start kids off at a young age,” he said.

While some would say, “How is the STEAM approach different from regular education?”, Larson explained that the Expo would show it involves action. “You can learn about flight, for example, but building an air-powered rocket,” he said.

“You can learn about sustainability by growing a hydroponic garden.”

The organizer of the STEAM-Maker Expo, Georgiana Simpson of Bluff, smiled April 12 as she watched a 7-year-old girl win the bubble challenge, a series of math-related questions that were meant to predict the shapes of bubbles when they came together.

The girl was competing against the whole audience, which included adults, college students, other kids and some professors.

Simpson was hoping that was the moment that the 7-year-old would remember.

“I’m a firm believer that if we have all these types of things available, there will be that one thing that will spark in a kid’s mind,” she said.

You never know what will ignite a child’s interest. For Simpson’s daughter it was something different.

“She was on a river trip and was looking at the stars. That is what did it for her,” she said. She now is studying astronomy.

To Simpson, STEAM is about relating all those elements to the real world and igniting passions.

“Math is what we live with,” she said. “This is all around you. This is a part of your life. I hope this ignites kids.”

Over 800 local children attended the Expo on April 11. They built air-powered rockets, made pots on potting wheels, learned to solder, constructed kites, drove big-equipment simulators, stepped into star labs and watched student-built robots.

Simpson said the first STEAM-Maker Expo was a huge success and she plans on making it an annual event.

She just hoped that it was enough to show that STEAM can be fun. So did the keynote speaker.

“Tell your friends: Math can be interesting and fun,” Morgan said.

Morgan then flashed a photo on the big screen, a photo of himself as a child, blowing bubbles with his mother.

A grassroots effort is bringing a new charter STEAM school to Cortez. The school’s charter was approved recently by the Montezuma-Cortez School District Board of Education and is being sponsored by the Children’s Kiva Montessori School, a private preschool and kindergarten in Cortez. The school is expected to open this fall and will combine the Montessori teaching techniques with the STEAM approach.

It will open in the old Beech Street Kindergarten, which was closed several years ago by the Montezuma-Cortez School District as part of budget cuts.

The popularity of the idea with local parents is growing.

The original 64 slots for the school were filled quickly and there is a growing waiting list, said Anna Cole, Founding Committee Chair for the Children’s Kiva Montessori Charter School.

Cole has a Ph.D. in education and when she moved here with her family, she wanted more alternatives in local education. Cole said she hopes the charter school will be a great option.

“The part I really love (about STEAM) is the interdisciplinary project-based approach,” she said. “We can create problems for kids that require the integration of all subjects.” For example, Cole said, kindergarten kids can do a community survey, map the community and try to make it better.

But how will STEAM look in the classroom? “It requires some sort of experiment where they don’t know the outcome and they are solving some sort of real problem,” she said.

But this new charter will combine Montessori with STEAM. Cole hopes it will be a win-win.

“Montessori has been around forever, but it’s underdeveloped in science, math and technology,” she said.

The Montessori method was developed in the late 1800s by Maria Montessori and emphasized independent working.

“We think Montessori and STEAM schools have a lot in common,” Cole said. But she couldn’t think of any other schools that have combined the two disciplines.

She said a curriculum design committee is working on what will be taught at the new school. “But we have all decided that there will be a high level of rigor,” she said.

The school is expected to open in August and will include kindergarten through sixth grade, but is planned to eventually to include seventh and eighth grades.

But even though the Montezuma-Cortez School District board approved the school’s charter, they were not happy about it. School-board members know it will draw students away from the district and, with them, the money they bring to the district’s coffers. Not a pleasant thought considering the ever-dwindling funds for Colorado education.

In other STEAM-related news, the Dolores Public Library will focus on STEAM during its summer reading program. Visit doloreslibrary.org for more details.

If interested in the new charter school, email kivacharter@gmail.com.

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From May 2014.