Growing up in Michigan, I started kindergarten at the age of 4. I was usually the youngest one in my class, but that was amplified even more so when I moved to Florida at the start of sixth grade. I was 10 years old while the rest of my classmates were 11 or 12. I was naturally a shy child, and now I was even more reserved and unsure of my ability to keep up with others because of the age difference. So, I worked harder, asked more questions and didn’t quit when the rest of my classmates were quick to. I adapted and regained confidence in myself by growing through the intimidation.
We are all forced to face moments of intimidation like this. They are not reserved only for our childhood. Facing our fears is something we all continue to deal with as adults, and that will never cease. As a K-6 educator of 10 years, I not only see that same fear and intimidation in my students’ eyes but also in the faces of experienced teachers when it comes to embracing change.
When I first started teaching, I remember coming to school each day hoping to tap into my students’ natural curiosities and wonders, but quickly feeling defeated. I struggled amid the constant pressures of state testing, mandated curriculum and other challenges the traditional form of education enabled. This didn’t sit well with me.
The discomfort I felt forced me to look for a change. I wanted my students to feel confident in themselves as individuals, even if they struggled to read on grade level. I wanted them to understand that what they were spending time on in class was not just about earning a good grade or passing a test; rather it was about empowering themselves as individuals in our world.
Once I discovered hands-on STEAM learning, everything changed. STEAM subjects are interdisciplinary and based around real-world connections that help to develop 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication and resilience. STEAM was the exact thing I was looking for.
I was apprehensive at first because I didn’t think I was qualified to teach it. I had an elementary education degree, not STEM. How was I supposed to teach my students coding and these other higher-level skills without the expertise or experience myself? I didn’t want my lack of confidence to stand in the way.
I’ve learned that the best teachers are the ones willing to take risks and be adaptable, so I adapted.
I immersed myself in everything I could about STEAM. I looked for any lesson plan or activity advertised as STEM or STEAM and tried what I could. I learned through each success and failure. I saw just how important it was to let the students construct their own knowledge instead of providing the knowledge to them directly. I learned how excited my students became when we did problem-based learning that was open-ended and that tapped into their natural curiosities. I learned how beneficial it was to give my students opportunities for hands-on learning experiences, no matter how messy it would get.
I was feeling more confident in my STEAM abilities as an educator; however, I still struggled with teaching computer science and coding, as those were my least knowledgeable areas. I soon discovered Lego Education, and my students lit up with excitement just as much as I did. These solutions enabled my students to imagine and engineer using the familiar bricks to experience hands-on STEAM while also learning the fundamentals of computer science and coding.
Watching students experiment and grow
I witnessed the transformation firsthand as I saw their faces once they engineered a physical masterpiece with their bricks and then brought it to life with motion and sound by coding it with their laptops. I had fifth-graders in the shoes of NASA engineers, scientists and astronauts through a learning series that celebrates the Artemis I mission. We designed and engineered lunar rovers with another kit over six weeks and then tested them out on our lunar surface track by having the students operate their rovers from a distance using the code they wrote themselves. The reward of seeing my students excited and engaged in these experiences made the struggles and extra effort all worthwhile.
Of course, taking risks isn’t always easy. It requires a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. That’s the beauty of teaching: We can model lifelong learning for our students and show them that it is OK to fail, and that failure does not mean one should give up. I had to learn at the same time as my students and often felt like I was out of my depth. As my students saw me fail and gain confidence in coding alongside them, they built up their own confidence and ability to tackle seemingly complex challenges with less fear of making mistakes or having to start over.
My work has since expanded to helping other teachers rethink and embrace STEAM learning; however, it isn’t always easy. I’ve found that many teachers feel uncomfortable with change and see it as extra work they have no time for. But I believe that we cannot do the same thing and expect different results. The world has changed, and our approach to education must evolve as well. So that has become my personal goal — to make STEAM more tangible for teachers, to help them understand and see the true value of incorporating hands-on STEM education into elementary curriculum.
4 tips for embracing STEAM
As I reflect on my experience, I thought of the advice I would give to my younger self who was worried and what I would share with other teachers who may be intimidated.
- Don’t be afraid to change and try something new. Be open to new teaching methods and technologies to meet students where they are. Welcome change, and experiment with new tools and approaches to teaching.
- Embrace failure. Encourage yourself and your students to see everyday mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. Failure is where we learn.
- Stay informed about new developments and trends in education. Read blogs and journals, join professional learning networks and, if you’re able to, attend conferences to learn the latest best practices and technologies.
- Lean on your fellow teachers. Reach out to other teachers and help one another. Perhaps they’ve just gone through this journey themselves and have advice, or they have been scared to try something new, and you can do it together.
Overall, educators must remain flexible and adaptable to set our students up for success. We must be willing to adjust our teaching methods to meet our students’ needs and take risks along the way. We are the role models of learning, and they are looking up to us to see how we adapt to succeed.
Jillian Johnson is a STEM education professional in Orlando, Fla., with a passion for empowering students and inspiring innovation within education. She integrates Lego Learning System | Lego Education solutions to create hands-on STEAM learning. She earned a Master of Arts in Instructional Design and Educational Technology from the University of Central Florida and was named Curriculum Associates Extraordinary Educator 2022.
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