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How project-based learning can transform your STEAM classroom

STEAM Made Easy

How project-based learning can transform your STEAM classroom

Discover how Impact Projects can help your students develop essential skills.

In this guide, Claire Amos – Principal at Albany Senior High School (ASHS) and our specialist STEAM partner – focuses on project-based STEAM learning. Or, as ASHS call it, "Impact Projects."

Read her guide to discover why project-based learning is important, and how to set up your own Impact Projects.

What are Impact Projects, and why should you care?

We often teach STEAM by picking a core STEAM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art or Math) and weaving in the elements of other STEAM subjects into each lesson. This approach works well, especially with an intentionally integrated approach to teaching, assessing and lesson design.

However, there is another approach schools can use to integrate STEAM into the school curriculum: project-based learning. At ASHS we've taken this approach with a STEAM-based learning programme called "Impact Projects."

What is an Impact Project?

An Impact Project is a year-long, student-lead project that is monitored and assisted by a project mentor (teacher).

We challenge our students to build a solution to a gap or problem within their community. As groups or pairs, our students work from the brainstorming stages all the way to implementation and review of their Impact Project—with a dedicated day each week to focus on it.

Impact Projects are guided by these four principles:

  1. Student ownership and agency
  2. Substantial learning beyond the classroom
  3. Quality product
  4. Participating and contributing with the community

How do Impact Projects help our students?

Not only do Impact Projects require our students to learn, develop and be assessed on all STEAM subjects, it's all done in an organic, real-world setting.

There's a natural and authentic need to draw on skills and knowledge from across the curriculum in each project, and extra opportunities to teach STEAM subjects consistently present themselves through these projects. (For our teachers, I can only say that it is very engaging and sometimes requires a nimble mind!)

The added bonus? These Projects also challenge our students to develop another set of skills: The Ten Essential Skills for 2020—as reported by the World Economic Forum.

Ten Essential Skills for 2020

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Throughout the year, our students engage in creative, complex problem solving, critical thinking and learn how to negotiate and collaborate—all while managing themselves and others. The very skills employers and universities are looking for—and the skills our young people will need too thrive in an increasingly complex world.

Six steps to creating your own STEAM-focused Impact Projects

Step 1: What is your focus?

Decide on an essential question to answer, or problem to solve. For example, "How can we conserve or protect the native plant species in our local park?"

It's important to be clear on how this problem relates to STEAM subjects. Will students design and build products? Will they run fundraising campaigns? Build a mural to raise awareness? Campaign for sponsorship? All of these have the capacity for STEAM learning, but it's important to think of how they will integrate in the planning stages.

Step 2: Work on the detail

Look for all the elements that are contributing to your selected problem. When you're unearthing why the problem exists, or what the correlating factors are, you begin to discover a lot of key background information.

This step should also help you decide the skills or processes your students already have, which they can use to get started on the project.

Step 3: The discover and preparation stage

This step is all about active research and intentional teaching. Have your students research the current solutions and approaches to your selected problem. What is working? What isn't?

As a teacher, you can use this stage to analyse what skill and process gaps your students may have. For example, do they struggle to give and receive constructive feedback and criticism? Will they need to expand their engineering skills? How do they work as groups? Once you have a good idea of exactly where they are missing vital knowledge for the project, help them bridge these gaps with lessons focused on teaching them these skills and processes.

Step 4: Application

This is where the fun happens! After your students have done their research and analysis of the current solutions, as well as what still needs to be addressed, they can begin to create their own solutions. This where they will use the skills, processes and knowledge that were taught in the discovery stage and put them to work.

In this stage they will brainstorm, build, test and finalise their project.

TIP: Try not to offer solutions when they run into roadblocks. Instead, help them work through the problem themselve by using a method such as this Gallery Walk Carousel Strategy.

Step 5: Presentation

It's important for students to present their final work for feedback. It will help them express their own perspective on the problem and give them the opportunity to facilitate feedback, helping them learn how to give and receive input from other people.

Step 6: Revise

This is the step that closes the learning loop. Have your students reflect on the feedback they received and on their own processes and skills. Are there opportunities to improve their idea? Can they come up with a better solution now?

Conclusion – are you ready for Impact Projects?

As you can imagine, these projects are time-consuming and involved. But the results are well worth it. It has been an absolute pleasure to see our students develop their ideas at ASHS. From conservation projects and art installations through to solar powered floating ozone generators and compact living architecture, the projects have been creative, brilliant and innovative to say the least. 

This type of project-based learning is applicable to 'real life' situations our students will face when they leave school. It gives them the opportunity to develop the ability to combine subject knowledge and processes as well as those ten essential skills.

Whether you're already adept at weaving STEAM into your lessons, or a first-time STEAM teacher, I highly recommend taking a project-based approach with your students where you can.

About Claire Amos

Claire is the Principal at Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand. She was also one of the three foundation Deputy Principals at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Claire has worked for a variety of schools and educational organisations in her twenty-year teaching career. This has included working at a number of new and established secondary schools as well as working on various national projects with the New Zealand Ministry of Education, the Nework for Learning, and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Claire is a founding member of the Education Council of Aotearoa and is a board member of NetSafe NZ and 21C Skills Lab.

Claire is passionate about her family, education, design and tattooes. She lives by the mantra: "You can never be overdressed, or over-educated."

Twitter: @ClaireAmosNZ

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