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STEAM Verses STEM – LEGO® activities and education in the classroom

STEAM education incorporates a focus on the arts and the creative disciplines, whilst STEM is strictly focused on science, technology, engineering skills and maths. In this article, we explore how LEGO play can augment STEM education within an educational setting such as with a group of students in a classroom, and some of the activities and benefits that can be derived from it.

STEAM V's STEAM

At the heart of any STEAM-based educational activity needs to lies a creative element to achieve the associated outcomes. It is important to remember that any lesson plan or activity involving LEGO will NOT inherently be creative just “because it is LEGO”. After-all it is very difficult to be creative when following a precise set of instructions such as off of an instruction booklet. Bricktastics always recommends approaching any classroom or an educational activity with LEGO from an open-ended creative approach, rather than setting strict outcome or requiring step by step approach. Doing so will result in an inherently more complex level of required problem-solving, resulting in the development of those much needed soft skills. 

Group and collaborative activities particularly benefit from this open-ended creative approach. Requiring more teamwork, negotiation and idea testing via communication. Here at Bricktastics, we sell a lot of our products to community groups and educational institutions such as primary schools, high schools, daycare centres and playgroups, and we want to assist them in maximising the learning and developmental outcomes from the use of our products within their respective settings.

 

Take for example a LEGO engineering project based around structural stability. Sure as a teacher it would be easier to predesign let’s say a “tower structure” lesson plan, develop a set of step by step diagrams and then have students build this structure in the hopes they would learn about symmetry, balance, and structural integrity. It sure would make it easier to answer questions, plan and execute the lesson and judge and grade the outcomes.

 

"LEGO play can go much deeper than just "build this thing for me" when the approach is taken is one of creativity and STEAM-based education."

However, in reality, the skill most likely being developed would be how to follow a set of instructions and achieve a specific result. A fantastic set of skills if you wish to spend your life following instructions from others. But that’s not what we are all about here at Bricktastics, we want to create explorers, innovators and out of the box thinkers who can turn dreams into realities.

 

So let’s revisit this above task from the open-ended creative STEAM approach that Bricktastics would recommend. Instead of a specifically designed outcome, let’s change the brief to “You are an engineer, you have 200 lego bricks of your choice and your task is to create a structure exactly 200cm tall and able to support 1kg of downward force on its highest surface, GO”. 

 

In this scenario, we have constrained and framed the task so that it will achieve a set of required outcomes, but not so much as to limit the creativity and problem solving needed to achieve the goal. We can all imagine how creative and innovative students would need to be to achieve this kind of outcome. We have not only intentionally failed to specify the types of bricks that can be used, but we have left the construction approach wide open. Within a creativity focused task such as this, we can expect students to develop, problem-solving skills, creativity, testing methodology, positive and negative feedback loops and even critical thinking skills. The student would select bricks based on theories of strength and stability only to have them proven or disproven. Students would also need to manage their budget of bricks, developing budgeting and prioritising and balancing qualities such as piece size and clutch strength, and all of this happens at an almost subconscious level until it becomes second nature for the students.

 

Wow, that’s a lot to take in, but I’m sure you can see by now how the educational outcomes of LEGO play can go much deeper than just “build this thing for me” when the approach is taken is one of creativity and STEAM-based education.

LEGO® Play in Practise

Let’s also be realistic classrooms are large, teachers are in short supply and the ability for most educators and childcare workers to facilitate a lesson such as the above one, may not always be practical or achievable.

 

For a lot of our clients, their intentions for our LEGO can often be as a reward, or something to keep the children entertained such as in a play space. This is particularly true for parents and families. Even with this being the case and factoring in that the play occurring is likely open-ended and unsupervised in these cases. It does not have to be true that the play occurring cannot be guided in such a way as to produce STEAM-based outcomes. 

 

For example, let’s take our Bricktastic Build-off as an example. This is a monthly LEGO building competition much like the hit TV Show LEGO MASTERS on channel 9. Each Month Kids are tasked with a challenge to create something to enter into the Bricktastic Build-off. Much like the tower building example above we make sure to leave the brief each month, guided, constrained but open-ended enough to generate some very creative outcomes. One only needs to take a scroll through this page to see the reality of such an approach.

 

Taking this example into a real-life situation, if kids play on their own Bricktastics recommends giving the children some kind of guided challenge, and better yet let the kids develop this alongside you.

 

For example, let’s say a group of 10 children are about to sit down to enjoy some LEGO playtime. Rather than have them just build, try workshopping a fun challenge. For example, we might say “what is your favourite wheeled vehicle?”, maybe it’s a skateboard, or a scooter, or even an aeroplane! Then request them to build you one. But not just any version, the coolest, most exciting version they can think of. Nothing is off the table, flowers on my motorbike, flames coming out of my rollerblades, let’s go wild!” Or it can even be as simple as creating weekly themes. For example, the first week of every month might be “home object week” in which the children are incentivised (your choice of incentive) to create something useful around the environment they are in. For example in a classroom setting they might be encouraged to build things such as book-ends, pencil cases, or as we have seen even a working abacus and calculator holder, etc:

At the end of the day completing these tasks often leaves them with a sense of ownership, pride and accomplishment that outperforms the creation of just a random thing during playtime.

Why STEAM at all?

So by now, we have discussed the “what”, but let’s finish off with the “why”. Why focus on creativity at all, is not STEM alone good enough? Here at Bricktastics, we think the answer is NO, STEM alone won’t create generational thinkers, great minds such as the likes of Albert Einstein, Elon Musk or Leonardo Di Vinci.

Increasingly within our media-driven lives, children are being exposed to way too much “entertainment” that switches off our brains such as TV and is compounded by news reinforces our worldview rather than challenges it.
For this reason, we think creative play and the development of problem-solving skills are more important than ever.

Out of the box thinking and making creative leaps are both critical for developing new ideas and things society needs, as well as propelling us into the future we all want to live in.

STEM education is fantastic and these skills are needed, but more important than teaching what to think is to develop HOW TO THINK. So whether it is science, technology, art, engineering, or maths that you teach, or just use LEGO for play in a more traditional setting. Make sure that any LEGO-based education you employ, encourages a creative approach with an emphasis on how to think and problem-solve your way to a solution rather than what to think and following a set path to the desired outcome.

So the next time you see a pile of LEGO bricks, don’t just think “fun building toy”. Think “opportunity for creative development” and a tool for moulding minds into the kinds of young thinkers that will one day make their dreams a reality through the skills they can develop with toys such as LEGO.

Author – Damien Azzopardi

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