A new educational movement to tie math, science and technology concepts to practical application is gathering momentum in Austin,, giving students the tools they need to turn theory into reality.

STEM Education

If you’ve been paying attention to media reports on education, you know that everyone from Neil de Grasse Tyson to President Obama has been talking about STEM programs. STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—has long been an area of focus for educational programs, particularly amid reports that the U.S. is losing ground to foreign countries with educational systems with a greater focus on hard math and science.

But the emphasis on STEM programs was incomplete, according to the 2009-2012 Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (AT21CS). The initiative concluded that “today’s curricula do not fully prepare students to live and work in an information-age society. As a result, employers today are often challenged with entry-level workers who lack the practical skills it takes to create, build and help sustain an information-rich business.”


What happens when you add the arts to STEM education? You get STEAM: an educational philosophy centered around a practical, hands-on “maker” focus that applies principles learned in traditional classrooms.

Around the nation, schools are implementing STEAM programs as a way of reaching out to students who have talent in STEM areas, but are disenfranchised for a variety of reasons, including the dryness and difficulty of standard STEM classes.

In Boston, at the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), students and teachers are embracing the joining of arts and STEM. The BAA lab is a “makerspace”—jargon for a centrally located, community-centered creative space with digital fabrication capabilities, usually including a 3D printer. Students use the space to learn STEM concepts and then apply the concepts in conceptualizing and creating impressive high-tech finished projects—hardly traditional art products. Students produce original work using STEM, but developing high-order design capabilities. They become Makers.

School adoption nationwide is still evolving, but in the creative and forward-thinking environment that is Austin, parents have a range of opportunities to give their children and teens this kind of inspirational hands-on experience.

STEAM in Action

There are few more enthusiastic advocates of STEAM than Patrick Benfield, STEAM Director for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin. Benfield is the developer of a unique program called STEAM by Design, which received a Maker of Merit award at the Nation Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., and was featured at both the 2014 Austin Mini Maker Faire and the 2015 Stanford FabLearn Conference.

“In general terms,” says Benfield, “making can be thought of as a mix of engineering-oriented concepts—like electronics, digital fabrication, and computer programming—coupled with traditional skills, such as carpentry and textiles.”

In January 2016, St. Gabriel’s opens its own d. Lab for Making. “It’s a collaborative learning environment that brings together people, ideas and tools to foster a sense of community through creation,” says Benfield. “We’re helping our students make their thinking visible.” The d. Lab, besides being the first in the Austin area to serve pre-K to 8th graders, will also be documenting how this type of approach affects both teaching and learning.

STEAM by Design is more than an assortment of “hands-on” activities. The hallmarks of the program include being student-centered and focused on process versus product, and there is a huge emphasis on constructing knowledge collaboratively by publicly exhibiting student artifacts.

Benfield hopes the lab will lead to a “Creative in Residence” program, where artists, hobbyists, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs from the community can use the space to create in a fishbowl experience—thus demonstrating the making process to future generations of makers.

Getting Engaged in Austin

Collaboration is the cornerstone on which the maker movement is founded. Benfield is quick and generous about sharing resources for those schools or other entities looking to design and implement their own STEAM programs.

“There is a book by Silvia Martinez and Gary Stager called ‘Invent to Learn,’ which is a must-read for anyone interested in making in the classroom,” says Benfield. “The authors also offer some professional development for educators.”

For parents wondering how they can interest their children in STEAM programs, Benfield recommends researching maker meet-ups and attending local Maker Faires. The Austin Mini Maker Faire 2016 happens in May at the Palmer Events Center.

“Also, look for other parents who have kids interested in this type of hands-on learning,” says Benfield. “There is power in numbers, and if enough parents begin to advocate for these types of programs, more programs will be implemented.”

There are a number of other non-profit and for-profit programs accepting students for classes and camps. Stepping Stone Schools; Mad Science; Bits, Bytes and Bots; the Ann Richards School and The Thinkery all have STEAM/maker programs and a wide variety of summer camp offerings.

At Stepping Stone, kids dissect owl pellets, feed plankton and build sea creatures from recycled materials. Mad Science guides children in an exploration of how science affects the world around us. At Bits, Bytes and Bots, kids get a hands-on experience of such sophisticated skills as robotics engineering and animated movie making. Whatever your child’s interest, there’s a local STEAM program to fuel the fire.

Whether or not your child has access to a formal making program in school or a day-camp environment, parents can create mini “makerspaces” within their homes. First, designate an area that you don’t mind getting messy. Stock it with tools such as glue guns, masking tape and scissors. Gather materials such as cardboard, dowels, wood and appliances from thrift stores that can be disassembled. A simple internet search yields great ideas on what to stock. Then watch your child’s imagination at work!


Barb Matijevich is a mother, freelance writer and yoga instructor based in Austin.   

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