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Making Stuff Work, from Robots to Silly Putty

Students Tinker with Tools for STEAM Teaching


Sophomore Loren Aguilar laughed repeatedly while playing with Ollie, a robotic toy that seemed to have a mind of its own. It maneuvered its way under tables, into people and toward a cardboard ramp.

The wayward ‘bot was one of about 30 types of tools and gadgets Lee High School students tested and tinkered with in the media center during STEAM Maker Day, which was focused on creating and discovering tools and methods tied to science, technology, engineering, art and math.

That afternoon, students provided input to staff to consider for use in class.

“It’s a good idea for students to have an opportunity to figure out new things and try new things,” Loren said. “It will be good to bring back to the classroom.”

Senior Betty Almanza created a musical card using a kit called Musical Kinetics
Senior Betty Almanza created a musical card using a kit called Musical Kinetics

Students made music in the recording studio, sewed a skirt for Principal Kathryn Curry, and learned to control Ollie and other robotic toys called Dash, Ozobots, Sphero and Beebots. They fashioned catapults, assembled circuits, balanced wooden planks and went old school with Play-Doh, the game Operation, Silly Putty and Shrinky Dinks. Godfrey Early Childhood Center teachers Deedee Stasiak and Eryn Watson joined the fun, considering what tools they could use in the curriculum.

The district’s technology and media specialist team — Sarah Wood, Kelly McGee, and Dan Townsend — borrowed the gadgets from Kent ISD and the Wyoming branch of Kent District Library. “We are giving students exposure, seeing what they gravitate toward and what interests them,” Wood said.

Teachers nominated 25 students to participate. Students chose what they wanted to try and for how long. They were challenged to figure out how to work, design and program things. “We are not telling them how to do these things,” Wood pointed out. “We don’t know how a lot of these things work. We are learning right along with them.”

After a few hours of play, students shared with staff what they liked about the experience, and the technology team presented feedback to the Board of Education that evening.

Principal Kathryn Curry models her new skirt
Principal Kathryn Curry models her new skirt

The Why of Learning

Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach observed the fun, considering how it could impact instruction. The whole purpose, she said, was to look at the “why” of learning for all students, from kindergarten through graduation.

She referenced the book “Becoming Brilliant” by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, which focuses on emphasizing communication, collaboration, content, critical thinking and creative innovation to help students become creative risk-takers. Giving them the opportunity to explore and figure things out helps develop confidence, the authors say.

“Today is about having the confidence to take risks and looking at how that experience can be used to learn content as well,” Lautenbach said.

STEAM Maker Day ties back to the district’s human-centered design process, for which staff, parents, students and community members have been re-imagining schools over the past year and a half. Human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that incorporates the wants and needs of end users of a product or service in every stage of the design process.

Godfrey-Lee received a $250,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to fund the process.

“Right now we are in the process of redefining what learningis,” Lautenbach said. “We spend a lot of time on the art of teaching. This is the science of learning. We can redefine what a child’s experience is, but still meet state expectations.”

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Becoming Brilliant

Steelcase Foundation

SNN Article on Human-Centered Design

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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