The A in STEAM

Teaching STEAM without Screens

A music teacher shares how she taught her K–4 students science, technology, engineering, arts and math without sitting them down in front of laptops or tablets.

A music teacher shares how she taught her K–4 students science, technology, engineering, arts and math without sitting them down in front of laptops or tablets. 

Music and computer programming have a lot more in common than you might think. When my young students first start learning music, they recognize and soak up patterns like sponges. Coding is also all about patterns and formulas. As a music educator, I teach young students in a way that gets them moving around the room. Ten years ago, I started Creative Connections Camps and wanted my students to learn a wide range of topics in the same way. I didn’t want them glued to their iPad all summer — I wanted them to use their hands, bodies, and brains to experience big ah-ha discoveries.

When developing the curriculum for my camp last summer, I started thinking about the whales I would see spouting out in the ocean on my drives up the coast to San Francisco. I did some research and found a fantastic song about the gray whale migration. That set me on the path of creative madness to figure out how I could turn all of this into a fun STEAM camp that covered science, technology, engineering, arts and math with almost zero screen time.

Science

My camp was designed for students entering first to fourth grades. As I started planning, I discovered tons of fantastic story and picture books to teach campers about the anatomy, behavior and annual migration patterns of gray whales. Even if the younger students couldn’t spell the anatomy words, the older ones could help them out as they identified the fins, flukes, baleen and other parts.

We divided a map of the West Coast into three sections: from Baja California Sur all the way up to the Arctic feeding grounds. Each team of two or three kids had to migrate their whale over their section without running ashore or going too far into the ocean where the predators could attack the calves.

Technology

To create whales that students could control, we made papier-maché models mounted on KIBO robots, which students programmed by creating sequences of blocks printed with simple directions like “forward,” “backward” and “turn.” There was no screen time involved because students built their programs with blocks and then used the robot to scan the whole sequence before carrying it out.

A music teacher shares how she taught her K–4 students science, technology, engineering, arts and math without sitting them down in front of laptops or tablets. 

In order for the whales to migrate north, the students had to tell the robots how to move. They discovered that if they gave the robot one “forward” block, it would move just a little bit. To make the whales move farther, they had to put a bunch of forward blocks in a row. But my students were already thinking ahead. They compared coding to music we had been singing and asked: “If there’s a repeat in the music, is there something like that for coding?” And sure enough, we had a repeat in coding. Eventually each team put their whale on a smooth migration track.

Engineering

Students had engineering journals to track what they learned each day, and as a group, we planned and imagined a 10-day trip to visit the whales’ breeding ground in Mexico. I did use a tiny bit of screen time for this. Google Maps’ satellite view let us grasp the distance and terrain between Half Moon Bay and Baja.

We saw that there would be crummy roads and no hotels at our destination, so we planned “Baja Buses” to meet our specific travel and camping needs. Everyone collaborated to create a big list of items we'd take on the road. And since we would be driving and living on the bus, all of this had to be considered in our bus design. Each student interpreted, designed and built their own bus using cardboard, craft supplies and other recycled materials.

Though the whales migrate almost 24 hours a day, they do stop from time to time to rest and feed the calves, so students also built lagoons for their whales to frolic in during their migration.

A music teacher shares how she taught her K–4 students science, technology, engineering, arts and math without sitting them down in front of laptops or tablets. 

Arts

To make our whales, we first drew a whale so we had some idea of all the parts. After that, we crushed up tin foil to create rough three-dimensional versions. Then we (literally) dove into the papier-maché and paint to create our gray whales. Some kids even put glitter glue barnacles on their whales. Googly eyes added the finishing touch.

Of course, I had to incorporate lots of music. Besides the fact-filled migration song, we put concepts such as the engineering and design process to music so ideas were easy to remember. Language arts even came into play with the “Addams Family” theme song. Campers collaboratively created their own lyrics for the “Gray Whale Family.” The first verse went like this: “They started off with four legs, then grew fins and flippers, their noses became blow holes, the Gray Whale Family.” It was absolutely hilarious.

Math

In order to give students a sense of whale scale, we went into the parking lot behind my building and measured out the typical size of a baby gray whale and a mother gray whale as they started their migration north.

To get an overview of the grey whales’ migration route, my 25-year-old daughter painted us a beautiful map that showed the route from Baja up the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington, and all the way up through the Bering Strait into the Arctic, where their feeding grounds are. This, plus our Satellite View, gave us the information we needed to figure out the distance and time it would take for our imaginary bus to Baja California Sur. We of course pretended that all the students had driver's licenses so they could have a turn driving.

The End of the Voyage

Once we completed our imagined trip to Baja, it was time for our papier-maché whales to shine. We fastened them to our KIBOs and placed them on a section of the map. The first team started off in Baja and migrated one of their whales to Half Moon Bay. The next team migrated their whale up to Canada, and then the third team migrated the final tricky stretch through the Bering Straits to the feeding grounds.

A music teacher shares how she taught her K–4 students science, technology, engineering, arts and math without sitting them down in front of laptops or tablets. 

There’s a big push to use more technology in every school subject, but young kids really can’t learn when they’re just sitting still. Kids need to move. The more they're manipulating things on their own, the more opportunities they have to become creators. As kids, they don’t need to be tied to a screen with a set of rules. We don’t want them to just be able to parrot facts back to us. Whether it’s technology or the arts, we need them to be able to think for themselves.

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