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Specialist Spotlight 1/13: STEAM

STEAM at TPS is different – its unique, project-based permutations align with our school’s progressive paradigm and are centered in our collective awareness of how technology impacts individuals, communities, the environment, and our future. Instead of relying solely on high-end manufacturing equipment in a separate corner of the Lombard building, students experience STEAM embedded within art, science and math lessons as well as in specialized classes dedicated to developing technical skills and applying engineering principles that are critical for preparing the next generation of solvers, inventors, and entrepreneurs.


Every Tuesday, students in Kindergarten participate in an edtech activity table utilizing the Osmo for Schools Learning Platform. During this time, previous instruction in a writer’s workshop or math center meets tech-based interactivity, reinforcing skills such as spatial reasoning and spelling. Learning is best when it’s called play, and the Osmo kits are fun ways for early learners to master the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, coding, and geography through hands-on playfulness, tangible pieces, and an iPad that provides instant feedback.

3rd Grade

Every year, students in 3rd grade learn about seed dispersal. Typically their learning is demonstrated with a final project that incorporates an art component  and a written component. This year for the first time ever that project will also integrate STEAM. Students will use the block-based coding environment on MIT’s Scratch software to create an interactive presentation to teach people facts about their seed (i.e. what it looks like, what plant it comes from, how it is dispersed, and where it grows). Students have Scratch lessons every Thursday during the duration of their project. In the end, every student will have a different interactive presentation that displays facts about their seed.

Junior Unit

This year in STEAM, Junior Unit students are investigating the realm of robotics. Students are using computational thinking to explore the fundamentals of coding using Sphero Bolts. They jumped right into coding using Sphero Edu’s draw canvas, which allows students to simply draw out the path that they would like their spherical robots to follow. Students, however, quickly learned that size, shape, direction, and continuity of the lines that they drew all affected the manner in which their robots traveled. Upon mastering the draw canvas, students moved on to using block-based coding. They have been grappling with their understanding of how different blocks affect the Bolt’s movement, LED displays, and we have even begun to explore how the robots can communicate with one another using Infrared (IR) signals. Although the focus this fall has been on the fundamentals of coding, in the winter we will pivot to algorithmic thinking and create “coded recipes” ourselves in order to automate robots we build. 

6th Grade

The year in TPS’s first-ever 3D Design class began with cardboard – a pliable material with which the former Junior Unit students were well acquainted, having already built an entire arcade and an orchestra of electrified instruments with the material.  Students quickly transformed their two-dimensional cut-out shapes into 3D geometric figures with the help of some elbow grease, Zip Snips, and hot glue. In the year’s first design challenge, students were tasked to build a working stool with only cardboard. As a result of their team’s construction efforts, students began to conceptualize the importance of 3D printing elements such as layering, brimming, infill, and weight distribution through the supportive processes of rebaring and stilting. Students then moved onto utilizing 3Doodler pens to fabricate a 2D shape, a 3D geometric figure, and a free-standing tree. Students' CAD (computer-aided design) skills were then put to the test as they modeled 3D objects within the Tinkercad app. The fall came to a close with the fifth design challenge of the year when each student ventured to create an artifact for their Create Your Own Country (CYOC) project that symbolized either an important contributor to their chosen biome or crucial vestige of their established culture.

7th Grade

7th Grade Robotics always begins with unpacking the idea of failure; that is, drawing an important delineation between failure (succumbing to defeat or giving up) and failing well (persistently testing and seeing mistakes as informing the iterative process). With each 7th grader having been assigned their own Spike Prime kit, they were quickly introduced to a sophisticated visual programming environment and coded their kit’s hub (or “brain”) to execute sequential and conditional commands. Throughout the fall, students have progressed from coding the hub to create pixel art to conditioning their robot’s pressure, ultrasonic, and color sensors and then moved onto looping the movements of motorized attachments. More recently, students have been collaborating in teams of various sizes to plan, build for, and then solve missions on this season’s FIRST Lego League Challenge map. To be successful during their robot matches, students first described their bot’s big behaviors in plain English and then translated that “pseudocode” into actual code. In addition to designing a robot to compete in a match, students have been studying this year’s Challenge theme, nicknamed Superpowered, which focuses on the generation, distribution, storage, and usage of energy. They have been utilizing their extensive research on the topic to influence their team’s own invention; their research included interviews with experts in the field of alternative energy as well as a field trip to learn more about smart grids and carbon neutrality. This idea of the invention remains at the center of their innovation project proposal, a presentation of their prototype which is inclusive of the background research around a problem, their solution, and the community they aim to help.

8th Grade

Having engineered and coded their robots in 7th grade, each 8th grader this year will be challenged first to navigate manually and then eventually program their own UAS (unmanned aerial system) through the Droneology Intensive. In pursuit of a FAA (Federal Aviation Association) issued TRUST certificate, the first third of 8th-grade students enrolled in Droneology this fall have been studying a wide range of drone topics including safety, laws and regulations, weather patterns, flight and repair basics, and the range of their commercial use. Students have been throttling and rolling their individual Tellos indoors, navigating obstacle courses, zipping through racing gates, doing flips and tracks, all while mastering a conceptual understanding of what it means to fly in a precise, targeted manner. Additionally, students have started to wrestle with the physics concepts they’ll soon encounter in high school such as yaw, pitch, roll, and Fleming’s Right-Hand Rule.