Somewhere between the squeals of joy and eyes open wide with wonder is a moment when learning becomes so much more than “Open head and pour in information.” The physical rules of nature are here to be discovered, and children are born with an innate desire to ask and wonder about everything around them. In STEAM, children discover properties and rules about the world around us and how they affect our everyday lives.
Now, imagine a lesson about the different types of matter—why is gas considered a form of matter if you can’t see it? Through a series of experiments, students experience the power of gasses firsthand. Given a sealed coffee cup with two bendable straws attached to each other and securely taped through the lid, the students use eye droppers to drip colored water into the bend of the straw. As they gently squeeze the cup, the liquid flies out across the room. They quickly learn that when the air (gas) in the cup has less room, it pushes the liquid out of the way; clearly, gas takes up that space!
Hands-on STEAM education has the power to help students view their environment in new and exciting ways. The importance of enticing students into a love of learning is never more evident than in a STEAM lab. Having a curriculum that continually deepens a student’s understanding, starting early in primary school and continuing throughout their education, is necessary for all learners.
At an early age, students can engage with all aspects of the scientific method through multiple hands-on experiences that include simple but exciting concepts. They can learn all the different aspects of observing, recording, hypothesizing, experimenting and drawing conclusions through experiential investigation. Imagine blindfolded students identifying both sound and the location of sound to heighten their awareness, or predicting and testing their many misconceptions about sinking and floating, such as heavy things sink and light things float. After weighing a large wooden block and a common house nail, their mouths gape in awe as the nail sinks and the heavy wooden block floats.
Knowledge is reviewed and expanded to include what physical properties are and how matter is divided. Students learn about Linnaeus and the accepted divisions that are made within all living things. A second grade student walking to shul: “Mommy, do you know who separated all living things?” The mother answered, “Hashem.” The second grader retorted, “No, Linnaeus!” and then proceeded to rattle off all of the divisions, subdivisions and attributes of each class of animals. This type of enthusiasm is learned, not through textbook study, but through hands-on experiments and explorations.
Children love discovery, and are fascinated by the universe. It is vital to capitalize on their natural curiosity and to satisfy their urge to learn from a young age. As students get older, the STEAM lab moves from experimentation and observation to include predictions, mathematical calculations and design. Through the integration of each of these disciplines, students continue to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of secular studies. Doing this through hands-on experiences allows students to go full STEAM ahead into the future as lifelong learners.
By Kim Siegel
Kim Siegel is the lower school general studies curriculum coordinator at Westchester Torah Academy. She has been teaching for more than 30 years in the New York area, and is a foster parent who has fostered more than a dozen children.