KinderSTEAM: A Day School – University Collaboration
A high priority at our K-5 school has been to find ways to encourage greater STEAM learning for our students. STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, is an expanded version of STEM that allows for artistic creativity, human-centered design, and integration.
Since 2014, we’ve partnered with the STEAM club of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The collaboration started when a few Brown students came to our local Global Cardboard Challenge, which we held in our gym. They were excited about the creativity and enthusiasm that our students displayed in creating a myriad of cardboard inventions. One of them wrote to tell me of their club and asked about finding a way to collaborate. Always looking for partners and innovation, my answer was an immediate and resounding yes.
For the past two years, we have had a STEAM week where the Brown and RISD club members and others come to teach our kids on a wide variety of subjects. From graduate students in applied mathematics to undergraduates in industrial design, these young student-teachers created lessons about STEAM subjects that fascinate them. Our faculty supports them in creating age-appropriate lesson plans. Our students have built pipe organs from PVC pipes and bird nests from various collected natural materials. They’ve learned math through card tricks, and our pre-K and kindergarten build toothbrush robots. We’ve had more than two dozen mini-lessons covering every grade in our school, pre-K to 5.
Not only do our elementary students learn a lot, but they think the college students are awesome, funny and inspiring. STEAM week has quickly become one of the highlights of the year. For a taste of our KinderSTEAM week in 2015, check out this video: vimeo.com/143611780.
We initially hoped to build ongoing relationships between the university students and our kids. So we built a framework to have these students come to our school once a month. But in most cases this didn’t work out. University students are busy with their studies and absorbed in their social lives. We can get them to commit to a few hours in a single week, but anything more long-term becomes more difficult. There’s an expression that “only two things motivate college students: credits and cash!” I would add free food to that list, so plan accordingly when setting your meetings with them.
This doesn’t give enough credit to the really committed students who did come to volunteer their time for many hours—but even our best volunteers occasionally woke up late and missed lessons, etc.
We learned not to expect continuity in leadership because different students each year volunteered to serve as the leader of the KinderSTEAM group. Both years it has been an undergraduate senior looking for leadership opportunities, but they are often busier than younger students, with the added distractions of finishing course work, submitting final projects and figuring out their post-graduation plans. So every year we have to start the process all over again with a new leaders and mostly new students as teachers.
Most Jewish day schools probably have a handful of parents who are professors at local universities. Ask them how to access STEAM or other relevant campus clubs, Jewish professors in STEAM, or students interested in education.
Build a relationship with the local Hillel professionals and let them know about opportunities at your school.
Even though most will drop out, it’s still worth it to invest in relationships with students, especially young ones who will be around to fill leadership positions in later years.
Try to find a way college students can get course credit for their work with your school. You may need a faculty advisor, or to do some extra paperwork, but it’s worth the effort if it can make working with your school a priority for the students.
Say yes to crazy ideas. Try to support rather than control the college students’ passions. You may get a bad class or two, but you will gain dozens of really interesting out-of-the-box experiences.
Be prepared for student-teachers to get lost, oversleep, or cancel at the last minute. They are volunteers, after all, and as the professionals, we have to be prepared for everything—even more so with college students.
In the end, building a partnership with colleges and universities doesn’t take too much. But it does require having confidence in children: that they’re curious, intelligent, thoughtful and want to succeed. If that’s your primary belief about your kids, then devoting a week for them to learn in different ways, from people who are passionate about their subject, is not really a risk at all. It’s an opportunity for deep learning and joy.