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Our take on the ‘A’ in STEAM education

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Our journey to STEAM

In the past few years, as part of my chosen life purpose — to enable others — I have been working at Girls Invent Tomorrow which aims to create future female STEAM leaders. When we started this non-profit entity, we were driven by the urge to have a more balanced representation and influence in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics in the workplace.

Technology was a core focus as the gender gap was not getting smaller in any significant way. Young women still struggle with basic information such as knowledge of new, lucrative and exciting careers that are possible to pursue today, to infrastructural challenges such as not having access to the Internet and the wealth of possibilities that it holds. Through many initiatives that served as an introduction to these careers, we were able to create awareness and spark interest in activities such as software engineering through coding days.

It became increasingly apparent over time and our experience with countless numbers of high school learners that there was a missing component that can give context to what they were learning in technical workshops and being exposed to through workplace visits and mentor talks. We approached this by adding Design Thinking — a problem-solving approach and mindset deeply seated in creativity with which we as the GIT founder team were very familiar in our day jobs in cutting-edge work across organisations. Design is an incredibly useful vehicle in that, if done right, it is open enough to allow conversation on ethics and how the technologies, products and discoveries we make affect people and the planet, yet narrow enough to give agency to make change, even if in a small way. It’s one thing to teach kids to say, make an Android app. It’s quite another to have it published unpolished so that it wastes users’ time, frustrates them or misuses their data because the amateur maker was not suitably prepared to understand context and responsibility. 

It was at this time that we discovered that there was a growing movement to reimagine STEM as STEAM — the ‘A’ representing the liberal Arts. It seems were were already expressing the ‘A’ as Design and with interesting results such as learners gaining the confidence to ask bolder questions of situations and discovering their innate creative thinking capabilities. We have kept it as a core part of our programme and are keen to explore more of the ‘A’ in the future as an integral part of the sciences and technology to develop a more holistic, interdisciplinary learner who can thrive in 21st Century living.

Future skills

When the World Economic Forum published the Top 10 Skills Needed in 2020 in The Future of Jobs report, it become clear that what has been called “soft skills” in the past were becoming more important for the future we are building that has in many ways been shaped by the rapid advancement in technology development and their effect on our species. The emphasis is as a result shifting from rewarding people to be good automatons to creative, autonomous people who know how to work well with others, leaning on our most human attributes. These had been stripped away in the classroom and workplace and thankfully, now experiencing a slow (and needed) death to allow people to become more successful as “whole” beings.

The tragedy despite the widely circulated list is that in many local schools, from what we have observed, there has yet to be any effective action to develop these 21st Century learners. There has been some effort in introducing more technology and coding programmes in addition to extra math and science classes but I believe that they will ultimately have limited success. Over and above some of the infrastructural and logistics issues that are sometimes highlighted in media, the other challenge is an approach that fails to give context to these new subjects nor are they being presented in ways that are accessible and engaging to these young people.

What the ‘A’ in STEM can do is become the stage and the glue, helping to connect ideas from what would have been disparate subjects and setting the stage for optimal learning to occur. The few local schools I’ve encountered that practice project-based learning have most likely experienced the benefits of this approach where the inspiration is some kind of challenge area that learners can explore holistically through various lenses (or subject areas), thus giving context to the code or theorem they’re learning. It’s worth noting that neither PBL nor STEAM-approaches can replace foundational skills teaching of subjects such as reading and mathematics. In fact, we have struggled with introducing some of our extra curricular programmes to learners who lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills — a huge hurdle for the South African education system to address, and one would hope, with great urgency.

One of my favourite examples of a successful expression of STEAM is in the Maker movement. Makers in this context are self-organised communities of tinkerers from various backgrounds who gather to challenge themselves to create creatively together. Locally I’ve seen makerspaces develop quirky video games, create art from the live data-tracking of ambient noises, to launching high-altitude balloons into near space. They embody some of the most impressive expressions of creative thinking, problem-solving, experimentation, collaboration, technical prowess, and learning that innovation requires. Some schools around the world have recognised the potential of this setup to bolster learning in the classroom and have built some version of a maker lab.

Today’s learner is faced with the challenge of living through huge shifts in how we think about work, education and many other facets of humanity. This state of flux could be disheartening as the certainty afforded to past generations such as set education and career paths are all but gone now. As a person who has always valued a winding path through my wide set of interests, I see this as an incredible opportunity and time to break the old chains that kept people from being their best possible selves: tapping into their creativity, finding joy in working with others to explore the world’s (or own) problems and taking perhaps undiscovered paths to achieve this. Not knowing is the super power, not cause for alarm. (And yes, this is easier said than lived).

The arts give us the tools to navigate this new reality of the versatile human with confidence, inspiration and excitement. Anyone’s learning journey, especially in our tech-obsessed era, can stand to benefit from embracing the arts. Should the world’s efforts in STEAM education be successful, we will have no need for this acronym as it would form part of a more enlightened and holistic education journey.

Palesa Sibeko, Co-founder at Girls Invent Tomorrow

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