Expert Viewpoint

4 Hands-On STEAM Projects that Also Teach Other Skills

After years of hybrid or at-home learning, teachers and students are eager to end this school year on a positive note by doing as much hands-on learning as possible. Fortunately, many schools and districts have once-in-a-generation access to ESSER funding that they can use to buy hands-on STEAM tools ranging from craft supplies to educational robots.

To bring those materials to life in the classroom, following are some fun, engaging, and rich STEAM projects that help educators and learners make the most of being in the same physical space together — and also reinforce concepts like social-emotional learning, literacy, and the engineering design process.

SEL Through Superhero Robots

During the time when they were not in the classroom, students not only missed out on hands-on projects, they also missed out on essential social-emotional learning. To help students think about ways to care for each other, their school, and their community, ask them to design and program Superhero Robots.

Depending on what sort of robots you have in your classroom, students can brainstorm ways their robots might use their super-speed wheels, super-hearing sound sensors, or super-bright lights to help and protect the community. They can then create superhero costumes with arts and crafts materials, and finally, program their helper robots to move around the classroom and exhibit their superpowers.

To give you some ideas to get started, here’s a downloadable lesson plan using the KIBO Robot Kit.

Literacy Through Reader’s Theater

Coding and robotics give children a new literacy that they can use for self-expression. Teachers can reinforce this literacy connection through a “Reader’s Theater” activity where the decorated robot becomes a character from a student’s favorite story, and the program captures the movements and actions of the plot.

Storybooks featuring a journey, such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are or Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We're Going on a Bear Hunt, work particularly well for this activity. Children can read aloud to narrate the story as the robot moves through the environments re-enacting the plot.

With older children, you could even program several robots to act out the roles of different characters, providing a great opportunity for collaborative designing, testing, and debugging. Building, testing, and revising are at the heart of the engineering design process, an important STEAM concept. But teachers can engage students in this process even if they don’t happen to have a robot in the classroom.

The Engineering Design Process Through Floating Boats

Teachers kick off this activity by presenting small groups of students with a range of craft and recycled materials, such as boxes, cans, popsicle sticks, string, and tape. The goal is to use a limited set of materials to build a sturdy boat capable of supporting weight without sinking. Coins or stones work well as weights that can be added gradually to create drama and a sense of friendly competition among the groups.

I suggest breaking frequently during this activity to allow groups to test their boats, trade ideas, and make suggestions to each other. Collaboration is a key part of engineering!

Sequencing and Representation Through the ‘Programmer Says’ Game

Being together in the classroom also means learning playfully together through movement and music games. Following the principles of kinesthetic learning, teachers can create games where students use their own movements to make sense of sequencing and representation, two key concepts in coding and computational thinking.

Similar to “Simon Says,” “Programmer Says” is a game where the teacher presents students with a sequence of programming commands to act out in the correct sequence, either with or without an actual robot. You can start with movement commands like those you might give a robot: move forward, move backward, spin, and shake.

You can speak the commands, or better yet use cards with symbols representing the commands, to build familiarity with icons and symbols that children will encounter when programming with block-based coding programs like Scratch Jr.

To extend the game, ask students to imagine what other actions their imagined robots might be able to perform, then create new cards to include those new commands in the game. Finally, if you have robots in your classroom, reinforce the learning by programming the robots to act out some of the same Programmer Says sequences.

No matter what supplies you have in your classroom, now is the time to delve into hands-on lessons like these. Students will not only learn science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, but they will also develop the teamworks skills they’ll need as they get back into the swing of working with their peers again.

About the Author

Jason Innes is the director of curriculum, training, and product management for KinderLab Robotics. He can be reached at [email protected].