STEAM for Tikkun Olam: Harnessing Creativity and Innovation to Change the World
STEAM learning (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), alongside makerspaces, robotics programs and a focus on design thinking provide students with new avenues to stretch their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But STEAM education has the potential to do more. At the Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto, students are directing their scientific and technical learning to imagine new possibilities for making positive change. We aim to infuse STEAM education with our Reform Jewish focus on tikkun olam and our International Baccalaureate commitment to global citizenship.
Our fifth grade students are working on a number of complex social and environmental problems that they hope to solve through STEAM education.
Food equity in Toronto
Students apply their data-management and measurement skills to map local food deserts (areas that lack access to affordable produce). Students plot the grocery stores and community gardens around our school on classroom maps and research local responses to this issue, including growing food in our own learning garden and considering the Judaic approach to land and ownership.
Partnerships with local organizations help deepen our students’ understanding of this complex problem. Students work with Action Against Hunger to study the costs of fresh produce in cities across Canada. They will be visiting a grocery store with a budget to purchase ingredients and then cook for people in need. Our students’ meals will then be distributed through Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian organization. By the end of this school term, they will be growing food in our learning garden to give back to the local community and to inspire healthy connections with growing and choosing fresh produce.
In their unit on energy conservation, the fifth graders apply their knowledge of renewable and non-renewable energy sources by building their own “green machines,” which perform an everyday function using only recycled materials and renewable energy. They research green technology around the world, like Israel’s innovative solar energy desert projects and their advanced desalination technology. Students have designed solar-powered ovens and dryers, water filtration systems, zip-line transport systems, fire starters, portable fridges and more.
The impact of environment on design
Students consider the impact of climate and weather on structures and are challenged to build model homes that can withstand simulated forces. During the design process, students research contemporary natural disasters, such as the floods in New York, Japan and Houston, and have gained insight into a person’s right to live in a structure that is safe and appropriate for their environment.
Students of all ages have undertaken ingenious projects in our makerspaces, which we established at both campuses in 2017. Here are some examples:
One student proposed a wheelchair prototype that climbs stairs so disabled children can attend standard schools.
Another student who recently had an arm cast removed drew from his personal experience to design a contraption that helps those who don’t have manual dexterity open doors and grasp objects.
As part of their unit on patterning and algebra, fifth graders studied the history of Braille and considered the themes of equity and inclusion of people with disabilities. Using makerspace materials and tools, students created their own versions of Braille and composed sentences with their unique notation/patterning systems that expressed the connection between mathematics and social justice.
First graders are proposing ways to make our school’s playground even more accessible for children. They built prototypes in our makerspace with the help of their parents at a STEAM in Action event in early May.
What do these STEAM-based projects all have in common?
They address real-world concerns, framed in terms they can relate to, thus driving student passion and excitement as they tackle those questions.
They highlight the potential of STEAM learning to tackle complex issues related to social and environmental justice.
They root student inquiry in Jewish values. Their explorations guide students to understand their responsibilities to one another and what it takes to enact those responsibilities in the wider world. Through this process, young people discover who they are, as citizens of the world and as modern Jews., students leave with a story to tell.