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Lower School STEAM Lab Nurtures Innovation and Creativity

Vivid digital drawings adorn the walls and colorful books and supplies fill the shelves of Calhoun’s STEAM lab. With maker tables and pieces of technology spread throughout, the room is a space for innovation and creativity, where kindergarten through second grade students learn about topics ranging from coding and the engineering design process to digital citizenship and systems thinking. “Even though these concepts seem big, they’re still accessible to our young learners,” explains Jessica Cathcart, Lower School STEAM teacher, who adds that teaching STEAM in early childhood is “a way to preserve the joy of learning and that insatiable curiosity while still digging into important skills.”

Jessica kicks off each unit in a way that draws students in by bringing in an expert in the field, letting the children explore the technology they’re going to be using, or reading a story that connects to the lesson. At the beginning of the school year, all kindergartners, first graders and second graders read the book The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds, which follows a student who doubts her artistic ability until she draws a dot on a page that her teacher then frames. Jessica uses the book “to talk about growth mindset and how hard it is to learn something new or to try something for the first time.” With that wisdom in mind, kindergartners make their own dot drawings to “make their mark,” using the iPad app Seesaw. After starting with one dot, they draw concentric circles around it, building their digital fluency skills while “also practicing the growth mindset of ‘I can do things I don’t know how to do . . . it’s okay to take a risk,’” Jessica explains. This lesson lays a foundation for students’ time in the STEAM lab.

“[Teaching STEAM in early childhood] is a way to preserve the joy of learning and that insatiable curiosity while still digging into important skills.” Jessica Cathcart, Lower School STEAM teacher

One of the major units of STEAM class is coding, which, as Jessica notes, is becoming more prevalent in early-childhood education – something “students are just experiencing along with math and reading.” Calhoun kindergartners’ first introduction to coding is with Blue-Bots, or simple programmable robots. They learn what each command means before coding their own devices to move to various letters on an alphabet map. Second grade students use Blue-Bots as well, even attaching balloons to the tops and coding them to drive along a parade route. Additionally, second graders do puzzles and play games on to develop their coding skills, and they read books like How to Code a Sandcastle and How to Code a Rollercoaster.

The STEAM lab uses a dynamic curriculum “based on the world happening around us today,” says Jessica. Here are a few examples of the projects students work on: 

  • Kindergartners follow the engineering design process to design their own “not a box,” inspired by the book of the same name.
  • First graders learn about the different parts of a tree, and, in a chromatography experiment, they explore why leaves change color.
  • Second graders make digital portraits using Seesaw, honing their tech and design skills to share about themselves.

Most projects incorporate an artistic element, as art allows students to engage with and absorb key lessons while expressing themselves through color and design. Students are also able to make connections to lessons they’ve learned outside of STEAM class – for example, Jessica has designed a unit around second graders’ study of types of communities, and talks with students about inventors from diverse backgrounds as part of their cluster teachers’ lessons on changemakers.

During their time in the STEAM lab, students spend a lot of time working on technical skills, like engineering and coding, in addition to learning how to safely navigate the technology they interact with on a daily basis. Through play-based learning, STEAM lessons aim to nurture children’s natural curiosity while preparing them to navigate the in-person and digital world around them. With all of the projects they do, “the ultimate goal for this program is that students come out with agency, knowing that they can solve their own problems,” says Jessica. “That’s valuable in every subject. It’s valuable in all of their learning."