‘Computational thinking’ in every class

Fifth graders sketched designs for “Rube Goldberg machines” that would turn on and off lights or feed a pet fish. Each team member “spent a few minutes sketching out how one part — a marble run, say, or a Lego Robotics kicking foot — would operate within the machine,” then handed it off to the next person, who’d design the next step, writes Chris Berdik for the Hechinger Report.

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

Each fifth grader designs one part of a Rube Goldberg machine. Credit: Chris Berdik

In the affluent Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette, “computational thinking” is integrated into every grade and class.

In the past five years, South Fayette has created STEAM (science, technology, engineering art and math) labs where K-12 students can work on coding, 3-D printing, computer-aided design and robotics.

“Computational thinking means breaking complex challenges into smaller questions that can be solved with a computer’s number crunching, data compiling and sorting capabilities,” writes Berdik.  That problem-solving approach can be “used in everything from textual analysis to medical research and environmental protection.”

The elementary school STEAM lab is filled with “markers, clay, straws, motors, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, sensors, felt and wires,” writes Berdik.

. . .  one class of second-graders recently learned how to use simple circuits to make a game in which the correct answer to a double-digit math problem would light up a little bulb.

“Last year, we did a digital storytelling project in here using stop-motion photography,” (STEAM teacher Melissa) Unger said. “It was spring, and the kids were learning about the life cycle of a butterfly in their regular classroom. So the teachers took that technology piece out of here and back to their classrooms, where students created animations of the life cycle.”

In Anthony Mannarino’s seventh-grade technology education class, “students have created everything from model planes to gears to more ergonomic handles for pots and pans.” Their designs are printed on 3-D printers. Students learn “habits of mind,” such as persistence.

“Whatever you design, there’s a lot of math,” one student said. And there’s plenty of trial and error. “I printed a case for my phone, and the first time, it was a couple millimeters off,” the student explained. “So I had to fix it and print it again. You have to keep trying until you get the result that you want.”

In middle school, a STEAM coordinator helps teachers weave the technologies into their lesson plans.

Students have made apps to help learn foreign languages. They have parlayed a science lesson on energy into the building of tiny, electrified, energy-efficient houses. They’ve used Scratch to animate their writings from English class and mixed music lessons with coding to build digital bands.

High school students can take technology entrepreneurship and human-centered design, as well as Advanced Placement programming. South Fayette students have won awards for their designs, such as  a “geriatric walker that deploys an extra stabilizer when helping someone get up from a chair and sounds an alarm when the walker is tipped beyond its center of gravity.”

Oracle will house Design Tech High

Oracle will build a 550-student school on its Silicon Valley campus to house Design Tech High School, a charter dedicated to “design thinking.”

Founded in 2014, Design Tech focuses on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math). It’s now housed in temporary quarters.

The school is reaching out to girls, Latinos and blacks, who are not well-represented in Silicon Valley jobs. But the Redwood City school will not be a “pipeline” to jobs at Oracle, said Ken Montgomery, the executive director and co-founder.

Oracle is donating land and building a high school on its Redwood Shores campus.

Oracle is donating land and building a high school on its Redwood Shores campus.

“We believe the world is changing so quickly and unpredictably, any specific skill might become obsolete,” he said. “We teach mindset, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and collaboration.”

Oracle CEO Safra Catz said the company’s founder, Larry Ellison, told her 17 years ago “he’d love to have a school where students learn to think.”

 Oracle volunteers will work with Design Tech students on science and technology projects.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are starting a preschool and K-8 school in nearby East Palo Alto. In theory, those students could go on to the Oracle-subsidized high school in Redwood City.

STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

Rapping about science at a STEAM school

Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA showed up at a Bronx Compass High School to rap about science, stunning students, reports Slate. (He apparently is very hot stuff.)  The visit was part of Science Genius, a  program created by Columbia Professor Christopher Emdin.

Bronx Compass integrates the arts with STEM to create STEAM, reports the New York Daily News.

The Castle Hill school, which opened last year, offers classes and programs in video game design, robotics, film, media and software engineering. It will add fashion design — or “intelligent clothing” with electronics — next school year.

Instead of using textbooks, students complete all their work in Google Docs. They write essays and create their own podcasts. They produce and screen films.

And on a recent day, students were immersed in finishing up video games they had created based on serious topics like the Holocaust and life in the Bronx.

In the music class, students used GarageBand and Audiotool programs to mix their beats.

Does STEAM make sense?

At the end of sophomore biology class, I made a movie with some friends that featured the Reproduction Song:  “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with reproduc -, reproduc -, reproduction.”

I also wrote a DNA Song: “Oh, the adenine’s connected to the thymine, and the cystosine’s connected to the guanine, and the helix goes around and around and around and the helix goes around and around.”

We also parodied those science films starring Dr. Research.

It was fun, but I’m not sure it was educational.

STEM to STEAM?

Arts advocates want to get on the science-math bandwagon, turning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM, reports Ed Week.

For instance, the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, with support from a $1.1 million Education Department grant, is working with city schools to help elementary students better understand abstract concepts in science and mathematics, such as fractions and geometric shapes, through art-making projects.

Harvey Seifter, director of the Art of Science Learning, organizes STEAM conferences, arguing that studying art teaches creativity.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, “invokes STEAM as a pathway to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness, citing as an example the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, a leading force behind the iPod, iPhone, and other electronic devices,” Ed Week writes.

Sure, the arts are important. And integrating subjects often makes sense. But I worry that students will spend less time learning science and math and more time on the “crayola curriculum.”