Why did I get into STEAM education?

I´ll see you on the other side – Hooked on a abstraction – No joy no gain – A new flame?

I´ll see you on the other side

As a kid I never had a problem with the way maths, physics and tech were taught. As a matter of fact, I liked them enough to graduate as a physicist.  However, I found it a little uneasy when I noticed that, for much of my fondness toward science. If the world turned back 200 years, I would not be able to put all that knowledge into practical use. 

“How will all those formulas serve you?” asked my Grandma when she saw my head leaning over my books.

To some kids math felt like going to the dentist – on the days you truly needed some candies to go to the dentist. They just couldn´t understand the basic concepts. To those kids the science teacher was speaking to them in a foreing language, which was not the case despite the odd looks of some of them. 

Not grasping math or physics did not make them less smart. Some of them were way smarter than I was. And I tell you something, chances are that those who were not had much more practical and physical skills that I had.

But I don´t want to fall into the false blue collar – white collar dichotomy here. My perception is that physical, manual, practical skills at a younger age are completely uncorrelated with engineering capabilities. There were despicable kids who scored well in sports and maths, there were very smart kids who would not do well in maths, kids who would struggle in any topic and then guys like me who would do better at science and just pass the bar in more practical subjects.

I discovered later on that things were, in fact, not that good for me either. At the end of the first chapter of a university electromagnetic field classic book I found the following quote:

“I do understand the theory, but I can´t solve the exercises”

– Anonymous.

Which was something that I felt was read from my lips and which certainly means “dude, you never new your theory in the first place”.

This made me realize that the C-kids from school and myself were not that different after all, and that maybe it was just that we stepped on a similar stone at a different stage down the road, the stone of abstractions.

Hooked on a abstraction

Maths and physics are usually presented to the students the way the front stage is presented to the auditorium: what´s going on in the back is hidden. You are supposed to be smart enough to guess it, even though the men who developed those abstractions built them by placing one brick of concrete over the other.

An abstraction is an outcome of a conceptual process of thinking about concretes, specific instances of our perception of objects that live in the reality that surrounds us. You perceive that my eyes are brown and you develop the abstraction that some men have brown-eyes. 

This is a process that is used in every discipline and which is foundational in maths, physics, engineering and science. It is powerful because it enables generalization, it reveals connections between otherwise unrelated topics. And it’ll  provides a shortcut to teaching a discipline without recapping the nitty-gritty details of the conceptual process that gave birth to the abstraction.

But mastering any discipline means you should be able to go up from the concretes to the abstraction (grasp the theory). To go down form the abstraction to the concretes (solve the exercises). And to move horizontally between different abstractions and concretes. Sometimes starting from the abstraction leaves you in a cloud in an otherwise bright sky: it´s nice up there but you can´t go anywhere.

No joy no gain

I recall two other issues that some of my old school friends had with maths and physics. 

To begin with there was no answer to the simple question: “why on earth should I have to study this?”. Other than “this is for your own good!”. They felt that they were never going to use that knowledge in their life and they were right!. Not because it wasn’t useful but because they never thought it was worth the effort to understand it. And now financial education is a concerning issue in our society and numeric illiteracy is harming the very foundations of our Western democracies.

And lastly the way the topics were framed were boring. Pretty boring. So, to recap:  no purpose, no why must we learn this. No clue on where this abstract concepts come from and how they relate to the reality that I perceive. And no fun.

A new flame?

This realization is what got me into STEAM education. I wanted to know if I could figure out a more engaging approach to math, science, tech and engineering by overcoming those hurdles, and we are testing through an after school program that we set up at Fab Lab León.

Starting at age 7 we challenge our students to build an artifact. A cool artifact, such as a interactive monster or a keychain. Something that is intrinsically motivating because they can take it back to their parents or their friends at school and show off a little because they made by themselves that pretty and useful thing.

That takes care of the “why?”. We don’t have to make the case for learning 2d design, laser cutting or math operations. Those are only tools for them to achieve what they already want. They are not learning for the day after tomorrow, for the future. They are seizing the day.

Then we are designing the program and the projects is such a way that they build their competences bit by bit. The small, low hanging fruits come first. As they grow older they attempt bigger and more complex projects.

And we provide a healthy and playful environment. Most of the projects are individual, but the kids are working in a group. Many of them are friends from school. They can personalize the artifacts in many ways. Coopetition springs up naturally, which leads to playfulness.

These kids don´t have to explain much to their Grandmothers, they only need to show them what they built at the lab.

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