Creating a Beehive of Innovation
Early Learning Center:
All Early Learning Center students take advantage of Renbrook’s campus to practice their observation and identification skills. They look closely as birds use found objects to make nests, study natural materials and imagine how they could be used, noting changes to the water around campus – from ripples across the pond to solid ice. As they tinker with materials, they take on the role of young engineers and scientists. Their connection to nature lays the foundation for them to identify supplies they may need for a project based on their properties.
In Preschool, students begin to build taller and taller structures out of an assortment of building materials, reflecting their ability to apply basic engineering concepts. They start to understand balance and symmetry, making increasingly smarter design choices. Looking closely at the nature around them, they start to identify trees and birds based on their characteristics. In Junior Kindergarten they engage in authentic activities to practice newfound literacy skills, like bookmaking and puppet creation. Junior Kindergarten students begin to conduct experiments and ask questions to better understand an object’s properties: Does it sink or float? How do the leaves get their colors? As part of their weekly hikes, Kindergarten students begin categorizing the natural world around them into distinct species. In class, they explore concepts such as buoyancy, force, and friction which inform their making of vehicles. They engage in the design process to build a cardboard vehicle in which the class can play, construct boats that hold the most pennies, and invent their own toys. They run through the design cycle (Resnick, 2007) of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, reflecting, and then imagining some more.
“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” -Claude Levi-Strauss
The Lower School STEAM program features an interdisciplinary approach to learning. The core of the curriculum is based in science topics sequenced by grade level. Students regularly explore scientific phenomena in the classroom and while outside which inspires questioning and the construction of meaning on a variety of scientific topics. In first grade, for example, as students study the broader topic of “Plant and Animal Structures and Survival,” students are asked, “Why do birds have beaks?” The simple answer might come easily to some students (to help them get food!), but as students explore hands-on the many different types of bird beaks, how they function, and the different types of food birds eat, more questions arise. Supporting students’ curiosity and wonder is an integral part of developing the skill of asking those deeper, scientific questions.
While some of these questions have simple, direct answers (“Hey, Siri”), others are more in-depth. This naturally leads into the engineering part of STEAM. Students take what they’ve learned about a topic each semester and apply it within the Engineering Design Process. For example, students in second grade studied Properties and Phases of Matter. After exploring the properties of flour, water, and salt, they designed a process for making a modeling clay like Play-doh. This took multiple tries, many revisions, and a lot of bags of flour! Students practiced flexibility, as well as adjusting to failure which is a critical part of the learning process when solving a problem. With the field of engineering being so vast, students are often shown examples of what engineers in the real world are doing today.
Finally, technology, math, and art are incorporated within the content and activities in order to enhance students’ understanding of concepts and real-world applications. For example, students in third grade designed and created a bridge that needed to meet specific measurements but could be constructed from a variety of materials of their choosing. Creativity helps students see different perspectives and ways of solving a problem which is critical to collaborative work in the future.
In Upper School, STEAM transitions from the basics of engineering and design with a heavy science focus into a much deeper exploration of the engineering and design process partially due to the addition of regular science classes in grade six. This allows more time to explore students’ passions and to really focus on the things they are curious about. They work to effectively define a problem that can be solved and generate multiple solutions to the same problem through collaborative projects and robotics. Students develop agency in the content they are presenting within a central theme. These themes align with curriculum from their academic courses and range from earth and space science to global goals.
In seventh grade, students are gradually given more independence and choice in their projects while still focused on the central theme of biology. They focus closely on prototyping and iterating their designs while they explore the practical applications of mathematics through 3D design. As they learn how to integrate knowledge from their academic courses, they are exposed to new tools to help their ideas come to life. This year, one seventh-grade project was a 3D design project that applies biomimicry to address an issue related to climate change.
Students in eighth grade work on a capstone project where they design, plan, and select the tools for their project based on the needs of their problem. They must communicate their ideas to others often to practice presenting technical information in a way that the general public can understand. Each project is vastly different, and students can choose to work collaboratively or independently. Examples include designing an experiment, creating a working prototype, designing something on the computer, or creating their own pattern or model of a system. While there is a central theme, students are encouraged to get creative about what the parameters are within that theme and really explore their interests. This is their chance to show their ability to solve problems, set goals, and work through the engineering and design process to accomplish something they genuinely care about. In so many ways, this kind of authentic, personalized learning is ”bringing learning to life” personified.