Can coding be fun? It should be, according to a leading lesson developer for Australian schools. Pip Cleaves, one of the Experts in the Microsoft Innovative Educator program, believes that the best way to get students engaged in STEM is to treat it as a creative platform like that of art, music, or drama.
“Many people don’t associate STEM subjects with creativity–there’s a common perception that you can only express yourself through more explicitly artistic pursuits,” Pip says. “In fact, STEM activities like programming, engineering, and design are fundamentally creative pursuits that require individuals to build things from the ground up. When kids discover these possibilities, they’re much more likely to catch a passion for STEM than when we simply teach it in a theoretical way.”
That involves tossing out rote learning and rigid lesson plans. When designing some of the latest series of STEM “Learning Missions” for the MIE community, Pip sought to spark students’ creative impulses by making each lesson:
Hands-on exercises don’t just foster innovation and technical proficiency–they also give students a sense of ownership of what they make. These creations don’t have to be limited to the virtual world, either: in one lesson, students both construct and program their own robot built out of common household items like milk cartons and coffee stirrers, while another mission challenges them to design a virtual robot from scratch in Paint 3D.
“Being able to build something with even the simplest of materials or tools really spur the kids’ imagination,” Pip says, “and it also opens them up to the sheer potential of STEM fields like coding and robotics. We want to give them a sense of accomplishment and invite them to start asking, if I can make something like this now, with relatively basic resources, what else could I do in this subject?”
For students to realise the creative potential of STEM, lesson plans should be as self-directed and flexible as possible. Ideally, the end-goals of each lesson should also involve a certain degree of unbounded creativity, such as Minecraft missions that require students to build virtual cities and windmills that not only look good, but
“If you prescribe what the outcome should look like, students are much less likely to discover their own methods or come up with their own solutions than if you simply give them a few broad objectives to meet,” Pip says. “STEM lessons should reward functionality and innovation, rather than simply being able to follow a tutorial step by step. Doing so is much more rewarding for students and prepares them to handle bigger challenges on their own in the future.”
Just as STEM professionals must test and refine their own ideas, creative lessons should incorporate a degree of collaboration and critical feedback amongst students. Once students build or design something, teachers can encourage them to share their creations with others and use the resulting feedback in future exercises. The latest STEM lessons not only call on students to canvass feedback from their peers about their work–like publishing their own mobile games for their year group–but also actively reflect on the creative process.
“STEM skills, while important, also provide a platform for developing deeper critical faculties that will give students a lifetime of benefit,” Pip says. “We want the way in which we teach STEM to be not only fun and immersive, but also accustom kids to overcoming challenges with their own initiative and being resilient enough to learn from their mistakes.” In other words, not just addressing what students can do, but who they are. That’s certainly more depth than any rote-learning approach can offer.
Download Pip’s eight STEM Learning Missions (for Micro:Bit, Minecraft, Paint 3D, MakeCode, and Touch Develop), including comprehensive lesson plans and stimulus questions, through the MIE community (requires free sign-up).
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