At a time in their lives when they are exploring meaning and purpose, craving social acceptance, and seeking opportunities for agency, many middle school students find themselves in classrooms that are centered on grades, compliance, and independent work. However, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) activities can provide opportunities to meet their early adolescent needs with rigor, relevance, and responsiveness.
As my school’s STEAM teacher, I collaborate with teachers across subject areas to create experiential learning activities that address curricular goals, integrate real-world problem-solving, and provide students with "choice, challenge, cheer" experiences that promote student agency and celebrate individual successes.
I’ve found that the keys to designing successful STEAM experiences are to make them student-centered, relevant, and empathy-driven.
Make It Student-Centered
Adolescents want to know that their teachers see, hear, and value them. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to differentiate STEAM activities to create “low-floor, high-ceiling, wide-walls” entry points that allow every student to feel successful.
For example, our Latin teacher wanted to give her fifth-grade students the opportunity to learn more about ancient Roman culture, but she was concerned that the subject would be too broad. She also knew that the interest and ability levels of the students in this class varied.
We worked together to create an inquiry-based project unit in which students started with the Question Formulation Technique, chose a subtopic to research within the larger one, and then explored creative ways to apply their new knowledge. Students decided whether to work independently or with a partner or small group, designed a learning plan and presentation project with guidance from a rubric, and were supported by teachers throughout the research and creation processes.
Students applied their newly gained knowledge of ancient Roman architecture techniques to build models of modern stores and homes, construct an aqueduct out of modern recycled materials, and test the strength of arch designs built from various gathered materials. The level of student involvement was extraordinary. They were eager to put in long hours and were proud of their accomplishments. During the “living museum” exhibition, peers and guest teachers celebrated presenters’ work and provided honest and reflective feedback.
Make It Relevant
Allowing students to apply their own understanding or interpretation of ideas is a great way to boost interest and motivation. Making real-world connections to students’ learning is one method of increasing relevance and buy-in. While studying the civil rights movement in social studies classes this fall, eighth graders considered the significance of monuments and explored a variety of physical attributes to understand what made them so powerful.
Then, using recycled materials, digital tools, and modern fabrication equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters, students designed and built their own monuments to commemorate the history and significance of a specific civil rights movement event.
Students' monuments were placed on exhibit for a diverse audience, including high school design students, district administrators, and community members, giving the student creators genuine, relevant community interaction outside of the classroom, as well as a glimpse of how their design skills might affect the larger world.
Make It Empathy Driven
We can prime middle school students to become change agents by actively involving them in opportunities for societal improvement. STEAM projects can help students develop social and emotional learning skills, as well as promote both diversity and social awareness.
Powerful design projects often begin with empathy. When a major earthquake and then a tsunami made news recently while sixth graders were immersed in their unit of natural hazards and changes to the earth’s surface, their science teacher and I embraced the teachable moments and created a design project that empowered students with hands-on learning about earthquake and tsunami engineering.
Our students conducted research on communities affected or likely to be affected by natural disasters, as well as resource constraints, while designing, building, and testing structures using simulators developed in our STEAM Center. They saw how their knowledge, skills, and creativity could be put to use potentially to help save lives. Students showed genuine empathy and understanding for the effects of natural disasters on people all over the world.
Finally, Make It Personal
STEAM integrations in middle school are more powerful when genuine connections form between teachers and students, as well as among collaborating teachers. Taking the time to get to know and understand students’ interests, skills, abilities, and needs pays dividends with middle school students in their buy-in and engagement later on. Listening to and validating their ideas inevitably leads to increased interest and volition in STEAM-related learning experiences, and project work qualitatively improves.
Likewise, teachers who are new to or hesitant about incorporating STEAM into their subject areas are more likely, in my experience, to jump on board when they can work in a partnership and feel supported by colleagues. I’ve found that some of the most exciting and authentic STEAM experiences for students have been the ones where their teachers openly question, learn, try, and even “fail forward” right alongside them.
Critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and flexibility skills are widely acknowledged as being equally (if not more) important as academic skills in determining a student’s success. With the growing recognition that 21st-century skills are critical to today’s students’ long-term success, it is more important than ever for us as educators to find authentic and exciting ways to engage and challenge students.
STEAM projects can be a gateway to relevant and meaningful learning for both students and teachers, encouraging collaboration, idea exploration, and divergent problem-solving. Wondering where to begin? Check out these sources for student-centered, relevant, empathy-driven STEAM activities for middle school: