STEAM Does NOT Stand For ‘Spaghetti Tower Experiments And Marshmallows’

I’m glad they’re calling it STEAM now instead of STEM because it was easier to expand the acronym to make my point. STEAM or STEM, it doesn’t matter, although it seems that by adding the ‘A’ for Art we can drop another dedicated subject and now tick five boxes instead of four in an hour’s lesson. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve got excited when I hear a teacher telling students, “We’re doing STEM this afternoon”, only then to see the teacher pull out packets of dry spaghetti and marshmallows, sheets of old newspaper to be rolled up into tubes, rolls of Sellotape, or, even worse, bubble wrap and little cars to make a safety device for eggs. Regardless of any instruction given by the teacher, the outcome always seems to be shattered spaghetti all over the classroom and marshmallows either eaten or trodden into the carpet, or newspaper print all over the desks for the cleaners to remove and Sellotape 2 inches thick around the ends of a newspaper tube, or smashed eggs everywhere. Here’s why these lessons won’t benefit your students; in the real world, we don’t build skyscrapers out of spaghetti, bridges are not made out of newspaper, and eggs don’t drive cars. It’s that simple. Put it this way… Your student’s imaginations are so far out of the box these days; you need to join them. I would much rather see teachers scouring through eBay and using their STEAM budget to buy construction sets (think Meccano, etc.), which allow students to build properly, using nuts and bolts, screwdrivers and spanners and proper planning. After all, isn’t more like the real world than newspaper and Sellotape? Also, if you’re a teacher who loves to tick boxes, Wouldn’t it be better to be able to reuse your materials rather than throw them away at the end of the lesson?

Don’t get me wrong; I think STEM/STEAM based lessons are a great idea if planned and delivered correctly. They can engage imaginations, encourage creative thinking and ignite a passion in students that they may not have experienced before. So many times though, these lessons go drastically wrong and only hit about five per-cent of the mark they should have hit. Where does it go wrong? At the teacher level; not surprising when we note that the majority of general primary teachers admit that science and maths are not their strongest subjects to teach. STEM, or STEAM, lessons shouldn’t just be a box for the teacher to tick to say that she has incorporated it into the curriculum and that she doesn’t have to worry about it for another year. Also, having a quick class competition to see who can build the highest or strongest spaghetti structure in a 30-minute lesson should not be a way for a teacher to say that she has taught science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics in such an easy way. For the science component of the STEM/STEAM lesson alone, as with a dedicated science lesson, there are certain fundamentals to cover, certain principles to adhere to, and procedures to follow. The most important of which, when we are dealing with science, is The Scientific Method. As I see all too often, if you’re going to mix five lessons into one, you still need to be able to bring all the principles, rules, laws, techniques with you. Teachers need to explain to their students, each of the subjects exactly how they would as if they were teaching them in five separate lessons; don’t expect your students to tie it all together themselves.

I think another way in which these lessons are doomed to failure from the outset is in the teacher’s reliance on ‘resource-ready’websites. The teacher only needs the type a few keywords into a search bar, and they can download ready-made lesson plans the take away all the planning and enthusiasm. When I typed the word ‘marshmallow’ into one of his popular websites, the results were of no surprise. Whereas years ago if I had typed the same word, I would probably have got the majority of my results in the ‘cooking’ category with some results under ‘science’ but for more experimental reasons; such as working at the calorie content. Today though, marshmallows were ticking the STEAM box as the most popular results being returned were for our famous spaghetti and marshmallows towers. Let’s look at one of these ‘lesson plans’and see what we find. I narrowed my search down within an age group that covered the majority of middle and upper primary students, and the first free resource that I came across was called, insert total lack of surprise here, Spaghetti Tower Challenge. The resource was a PowerPoint document that consisted of four slides. The first slide was the title page with the drawing of five marshmallows, a bundle of spaghetti, and a sketch drawing of the Eiffel Tower in Paris with the left half of the drawing in the original ironwork and the right-hand side of the drawing made out of spaghetti and marshmallows. If this first line was meant to be an idea of what the student’s final construction was to look like, I could only imagine a class of very unhappy faces at the end of the lesson. Slide Two was titled ‘Task’, contained a picture of a smiling marshmallow with the words “To create the tallest tower that can support one whole marshmallow at the top.” Maybe they’ll be more explanation on Slide Three. No, all Slide Three consisted of was the title, ‘Supplies’ and five clipart pictures of spaghetti, scissors, a marshmallow, masking tape and string. From the pictures, it was inferred that students would be using 20 pieces of spaghetti, a pair of scissors, one marshmallow, 1 m of tape and 1 m of string.

Okay, surely there must be some learning objectives coming on Slide Four, maybe some instructions to the teacher to recap on the concepts of forces (science), some prompts for brainstorming ideas on construction techniques, the best way to join pieces of spaghetti to build a more solid structure (technology and engineering)? With the lesson plan include instructions to the teacher to allow students to use pencil and paper to draw some draft designs and allow the students working in groups to do some planning (art), or at least allow the students to weigh the marshmallow so that they know what load they are working with, how they will measure 1 m of tape or 1 m of string (maths)?

The answer again was, sadly, no. Slide Four was labelled ‘Directions’ and were meant to be printed out and given to the groups of students by the way they were worded. I have copied and pasted them below to ensure that I have captured all of the wonder and fascination of the task ahead for the students, as well as the spelling error.

  • No extra supplies will be given.
  • You do not need to use all of the supplies.
  • The tower must support the whole marshmallow.
  • The tower must stand on it’s on to be measured. (sic)
  • You have 15 minutes to complete the task.
  • You will work in groups of 5.

I have seen lessons like this conducted in the class before and, usually, the only extra addition of variation that the teacher will put into this is to ask an education assistant to gather all the items for each group, print out a copy of the directions, and place each group’s supplies and directions in a paper bag that will be handed to each group; even less work that the teacher has done herself. The teacher then thinks that this is a challenge in that the students have to open their paper bag, read the instructions and set to work. It is bad enough, and in my opinion bordering on unprofessional, that the laziness to find the resource and the total lack of originality and imagination that goes into an activity such as this can be classed as a lesson covering five important subjects across the curriculum. It is even worse that resources are uploaded to websites such as this and are regarded as ‘by teachers, for teachers’. In the search results that were returned from this particular website, over 50 of them were just variations on a theme. Do teachers think that they have come up with something original here? Do they honestly think that the 5 minutes that they have put into creating this four-slide PowerPoint is worthy of a five-star rating and positive review on the website? What proved the ineptitude and laziness of the teachers that had already downloaded this same resource even further, is that it did receive five-star ratings with teachers thanking the person who had uploaded it for compiling such a great resource that was going to save them lots of time in planning. If that is what teachers think, then I think it’s time to weep for the future of our students.

In my opinion, for this to be considered a great planning resource and time saver for teachers, this PowerPoint could have included a comprehensive lesson plan including hook, intro, lesson body, summary, conclusion, brainstorming and feedback opportunities, differentiation, highlighting key learning areas, including links to the curriculum, etc. Was this resource so popular because it was so basic? Was it limited in its content and imagination just because it was a free resource? After taking a look at almost a dozen of the other resources that the search returned, I found that the one that I downloaded was far from unique, or even the most limited. What was shocking to find was that many of the other resources weren’t all free, but some teachers who had uploaded them were charging up to $10 for a resource with very little if any, educational value or benefit. Is this what education is coming to these days? In a world where we are trying to teach our students more and more and get them ready for life in the 21st-century, why do we see less and less originality in the lessons our teachers are compiling and delivering to our students? Is it okay to employ general primary teachers who have little or no understanding of science and mathematics, let alone technology and engineering, and allow them to download resources from the Internet and have no understanding in their content, content, or relation to the curriculum?

Surely we need to employ teachers who are confident with the content that they teach. I know that the current thinking amongst many teachers is that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; if someone else has already created a resource or lesson plan, why must they spend time doing it all over again? I think the answer needs to be that we need to see that the teachers we employ are capable of producing their own lesson plans and delivering the content across all subject areas. After all, that is what they have been employed to do, that is what they have said they can do on their resume, and that is what they have convinced an interview panel that they could do. Maybe part of an interview should be to give a prospective teacher a blank lesson plan pro forma containing only a lesson title and year group and give them 10 min to come up with a lesson. I would much rather weed out the ineffective teachers at this stage than have them employed and virtually impossible to dismiss after it’s too late. If we up the game of our teachers we can up the game of our students.

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