Building STEAM toward teaching computer coding

Oak Bluffs School awarded a grant to develop and expand its technology and science programs.



By Stacey Rupolo

If you walk into Leah Dorr’s MakerSpace, it would undoubtedly be abuzz with creative energy. When The Times visited the Oak Bluffs School last week, students hovered over work tables with glue bottles, composition books, wooden dowels, straight edges, weights, and all manner of tools. On this particular day, they were absorbed by a construction project. They were building small-scale bridges with balsa wood.

Upstairs, in a hushed media lab, students sat attentively in front of 20 glowing iMac computers as teacher Liz McMahon wove in and out of each work station. On the day’s lesson plan was building an algorithm that would digitally navigate a car through an obstacle-laden evacuation route.

These two classes are part of an educational initiative by the Oak Bluffs School to integrate more technology into lessons and eventually to teach every student how to code. Funded by a $26,000 grant to implement technology in the classroom from Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that provides technological resources and training for teachers, Ms. Dorr and Ms. McMahon’s classes will eventually work together to code, program, and build wearable technology.

This educational initiative is part of a larger movement called STEAM, which seeks to integrate the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math into classrooms, and has made a foray into many schools across the U.S.

For Oak Bluffs Principal Megan Farrell, implementing STEAM was the best way to increase student engagement across classrooms and subjects.

“We are doing STEAM because we are focusing on our interdisciplinary curriculum,” Ms. Farrell said. “When you implement across [disciplines], student achievement increases and student engagement increases. Incorporated with that is getting our students ready for the 21st century workforce opportunities that are out there.”

Nestled within this tech-heavy approach to learning is a more humanitarian goal: teach kids how to be good people.

“When we start with social emotional development, then we have really well-rounded students who will not only be available for 21st century workforce needs but will also help us move forward,” Ms. Farrell said. “How do we develop future leaders who have compassionate concern? If the community has an issue that needs to be solved, how can we help? We want to develop this community empathy through STEAM.”

Every student at the school has the opportunity each year, for at least part of the year, to be taught by Ms. McMahon or Ms. Dorr. Ms. McMahon’s class is still in the first month of its inception, and Ms. Dorr is starting the second year of her program. But the instructors have big hopes for their students.

“My hope is to revamp the whole computer tech program at the school,” Ms. McMahon said. “The whole goal for the computer technologies is to build on these 21st century tech skills, but also bring in what they’re doing in the regular classroom. Middle school is doing mostly the coding background, and I’m bringing in other tools, like spreadsheet work and digital literacy. Our fifth graders are communicating with a school in Japan. The sixth and seventh graders are getting into coding.”

For some of her classes, Ms. McMahon is simply teaching fundamentals. Not all of her students have the same level of experience using a computer. Some of her students are too young, while others may not have one at home.

“Most people are on an iPhone or an iPad, so they’re used to having the tablets,” Ms. McMahon said. “There are different steps and processes when you’re using a computer. [For example], we were trying to use the degree symbol, so they had to figure out the shortcut on the keyboard. They all seem to listen to music online, and they all seem to know how to navigate a website and a web page, but it’s those other skills [they’re learning]: how to word-process or how to troubleshoot through a new program.”

Younger students in elementary grades are taught how to take pictures, make videos, record their voices, and type. For the older grades, in addition to learning technical skills and problem solving, they will discuss digital communication and appropriate expression on social media. Ms. McMahon said she would love to see her classes create social media accounts for the school and maintain the sites as part of their homework.

Downstairs in the MakerSpace, Ms. Dorr’s students will, among various other things, learn Morse code, deconstruct and reconstruct donated machines, build a moving mechanical animal, and learn how to use drills, wire clippers, and saws.

Ms. Dorr’s philosophy is centered on a hands-on approach to learning. Inspired by the maker movement that brought the Mini Maker Faire to the Agricultural Hall in May, her classroom can at times seem more like a workshop. “It’s this bigger idea that making things is important,” she said. “If you take this apart, can you understand it? We see technology, and it’s in a big box…. Kids are so amazed when they pull the box apart that they can understand which way the energy is going.”

“Not many kids come to the class with the mechanical skills or comfort with the tools,” Ms. Dorr said. “They’re learning how to build and construct things and how to use tools that I don’t feel like they’re getting outside of the classroom.”

Oddly enough, Ms. Dorr has found that the electric tools don’t excite her students as much as a more commonplace piece of electric wiring — the human nervous system.

“They love learning about the brain,” Ms. Dorr said. “It’s really one of those things that if we allow kids to relate to themselves they really are engaged in it and they find it really valuable. The lesson is guided so that they [investigate] what are my triggers, what upsets me, how do I react, how can I reprogram my reactions?”

Eventually, the two classes will collaborate to build wearable technology — Ms. Dorr’s Makers will design and build the piece while Ms. McMahon’s coders will program it. Until then it’s Morse code and algorithms, the building blocks for the 21st century student.