Gaining Steam: Real-life Skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math

Gaining Steam: Real-life Skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math

- in 2021 Editions, Education, January 2021, Magazine
Students at MC2 STEM High School Photo by Robert Evans, Ohio STEM Learning Network, managed by Battelle

Giving kids an opportunity to learn real-life skills through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities helps prepare them for the challenges of everyday life, high school and even their careers. We spoke with several teachers, educators and administrators who shared some of the skills that children can tap through STEM that will help them succeed at school and in the future. Some educators prefer the terms STEAM and STREAM. The A is for art and the R is for reading. 

“The biggest benefits of STEM learning are the link to 21st century skills as well as self-esteem, social interaction, confidence and problem solving,” says Kristin Barnes, a STEAM teacher at Menlo Park Academy. “These skills are important for all subjects and real-life situations as well.” 

Learning how to work with others is another big benefit, she says. 

“Some students are great at leading, others are great at following,” Barnes says. “Collaboration and group work are meant to bring out the best in all students. Many times, in STEAM class or Maker Space Class, as we also call it at Menlo Park Academy, students will work together to solve problems and strive for an understanding of one another. Collaboration is an important part of social development.”

Teaches Valuable Life Skills

Children learn important skills such as communication, problem solving, self-esteem, decision making, creativity and more through STEM and STEAM learning.

Those skills are a focus in the early learning, before school and after school programs at YMCA of Greater Cleveland, says Ana Thomas,

Photo by Classroom Antics

vice president of Youth Development. 

“We’re doing this on purpose,” she says. “So, when we are doing an art project, are we leaving room for creativity, are we leaving room for young people to have a voice and choice in how they are creating their masterpiece?”

“Rather than saying, ‘Today, we’re making a duck, and we need you to put the eyes where the eyes go and the mouth where the mouth goes,’ it’s more like, ‘Today we’re going to walk around our neighborhood, see what we find interesting and what we’re curious about, and then we are going to go back to our room and use some different art materials to design one of the buildings we saw on our walk today,’” she says.

Anthony Rohr, principal of St. Sebastian Parish School in Akron says the school’s STEM/STEAM approach is a hands-on, inquiry-based and a cross-curricular process. All of those factors help to build the foundation for student success and prepare students for high school and careers. 

For example, fourth grade students recently worked on a balloon project. They created balloons, developed stories for them and produced videos using the school’s green screen. 

“As the students started going through this and working with the balloons, and working with their projects, a lot of the students commented that they were not sure what to do,” he says. “They felt scared and afraid to try something, but we just kept encouraging the students, and we pushed them to try something new. We just encouraged them with a growth mindset that their first idea might not work and to keep going, and through that process, students were able to see their achievements, and their self-confidence levels began to grow.”

Helps Kids Discover Their Passions

Kids learn many skills from engaging in STEM activities, says Heather Sherman, director, at Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN). 

Photo by YMCA of Greater Cleveland

“Of course, students learn technical skills like coding and engineering concepts,” she says. “They also develop soft nontechnical skills learned through problem-solving that can be even more important. Kids learn about how the world works and the world of work when engaging in STEM activities. For example, design challenges are often featured in STEM education.” 

A design challenge is a chance for a group of students to solve a real-world problem. Design challenges help students develop and flex soft skills, like collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity, she says. Students work together, which helps with negotiation skills. They have to use critical thinking and creativity to come up with a unique solution, then communicate that solution and sell people on the merit and feasibility of the idea. All of those skills prepare students for the world of work. 

Sherman says parents and teachers play critical roles in helping kids learn real-life skills. Kids learn best when given the opportunity to solve real-world problems. That’s where they develop a strong STEM identity—a belief in their ability to be problem solvers and innovators.

“For so long, people have been blocked out of STEM disciplines because they were told —and eventually believed—they were bad at math, science or other STEM subjects,” Sherman says. “Instead of focusing on what students cannot do, we need to help kids develop their confidence and competence in what they can do. And for many kids, it’s helping them see and capitalize on their innate curiosity and problem-solving skills, and the way to do that is by exposing them to a variety of different career fields, hands-on learning experiences and other nontraditional forms of learning. From there, students may just figure out they are passionate about some area or topic they never would have explored in a more traditional setting.”

Each Child Has a Success Story

At its STEAM summer camps for kids, Classroom Antics helps kids learn through failure, which helps them learn how to solve problems from an early age, says Toby Foote, operations director at Classroom Antics.

“STEM learning allows that because for the most part there’s immediate feedback,” he says. Kids get quick results that they can learn from in STEM education because when they’re tackling a problem, they know right away whether something is working or not. 

For example, kids might be building a video game, and for some reason the character won’t move left and right correctly. Kids can ask

questions about what they can do; they can get feedback by going to other people’s consoles to see how they programmed it; or they can have a teacher come over to offer guidance. If they get it right, their character is going to start moving left and right. If they don’t get it right, their character will not move left and right. 

“In that aspect, we’re able to tell right away whether we’ve fixed the problem or not,” Foote says. 

Ultimately, STEM allows children to explore different interest areas, and it helps them discover their true passions.

“It’s not so much now, but a few years ago, the concept was, ‘Well, my child is never going to be a coder in life, (so) they don’t need to go to coding camp,’” Foote says. “I would argue your child is not going to be a soccer star, so they don’t need to go to soccer camp. The point is that we are trying to open up different areas of interest for children to understand where their passions and purpose in life are going to lie, and as parent, we don’t always know what that is.”

Students work on stock cars in the Soap Box Derby Mini Car program. Photo by St. Sebastian Parish School

How to Do STEM at Home

Aida O’Meara, a STEM teacher at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Mentor says COVID-19 has not put a damper on learning nor STEM, although they’ve had to make some changes. 

“Although group work remains a priority, final projects look differently now,” she says. “Previously, groups designed one prototype or final project; now each student creates their own individual product. During the design process the group works together to develop and design through various collective means. Then, they continue to discuss and share as each

Photo by St. Mary of the Assumption School

individually produces a final product or prototype. The group together presents their findings and solutions, including each member’s final product or prototype.”

She stresses that parental support is essential throughout the learning process. Parents can encourage their children to use their engineering and design skills at home. No matter the age of the child, all children should be encouraged to create, develop and design. For example, she suggests having a special place in the house that’s full of supplies, such as recyclable materials, tape, glue, thread, blocks, tools, Legos, toothpicks, straws, popsicle sticks, lids, containers, boxes, newspaper, dominoes, wood blocks and rods, wire, rocks, sticks, pine cones and other items from nature, as well as a child’s special interest items.

“It’s not necessary to purchase any fancy or expensive kits,” O’Meara says. “Ask questions, explore topics of interest and spend time together investigating various topics. This will spark an idea. Then, allow your child to take control of their idea and begin designing and exploring. When an idea does not work as planned, encourage your child to try a different approach or variation to the design. There is no failure, only lessons to be learned.” 

Activities that families can do together to encourage the use of STEM skills include:

• Cooking (try not using a recipe, or try changing a recipe)

• Create and design items for a holiday 

• Design a garden, indoor or outdoor 

• Create a new game or modify an existing game 

• Visit museums 

• Play board games 

• Build something together 

• Try a science experiment 

Ginny McCabe is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author, media professional, speaker, and teacher. Her work may be seen in Journal-News, Reuters and more. Connect with her at and on Twitter @ginnymccabe. 

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