From the Head: Full STEAM Ahead

Aidan Montessori School is a member of several different organizations, one of which is the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Like many organizations, NAIS hosts regional and annual conferences that serve as a great resource for independent schools. The NAIS conferences are great opportunities for Montessorians to consider some of the things that non-Montessori schools are thinking about.

At one NAIS conference, there were 5,500 attendees, about three-fourths of whom were administrators and one-fourth of whom were faculty. The conference took place over three days, and it included plenary speakers and break-out workshops. It was both refreshing and affirming. While the motto of the conference was “Designing the Revolution,” several themes or emphases stood out: Entrepreneurship, Failure (or perseverance/grit), and STEM/STEAM.

You may have heard of STEM, which is the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The difference between STEM and STEAM is, of course, “Art,” which many schools and organizations have been trying to retro-design into the STEM curriculum. One of the plenary speakers, a woman who works at the MIT Media Lab, gave a thoroughly thought-provoking presentation about the work she and her team have been doing. Pardon the simplification: they took shrimp shells and ground them into a powder. Then, they added a liquid that made the powder become paste-like. Next, they infused the bubbles in the paste-like liquid with bacteria. Then, they used a next-generation 3D printer to print the paste into a sheet that mimicked skin, with a rudimentary digestive system. The result was a man-made organic material. They fashioned this material into a skirt. When the skirt is worn in sunlight, the bacteria in the “fabric” go through a photosynthetic process that causes glucose to be produced in the digestive system of the skirt. Resulting in, well… sugar cubes in the pocket of the skirt.

When 3D printers first came out, many people asked the question: “So, what?” They were inherently interesting, but why print a 3D bowl over a span of three hours when one could just go and get a bowl out of one’s kitchen? In fact, a potter could more quickly and efficiently produce a bowl than a 3D printer. The answer to the question, “So, what?” became, “Because.”  Because 3D printers were the first step, and no one was sure of what the second or third step would be, but people were pretty sure something big was going on. Sugar-producing skirts were never predicted, but they were stumbled upon when a group of people with very different skill sets—scientists, technicians, engineers, artists, mathematicians, biologists, and more—got together and combined their fields. They research and they study, but they also play and take chances.  

Often, when people get together to work on projects, business models, cures, and more, they fail. And, nowadays, failure is being emphasized more than ever as the stepping stone to success. Another speaker, Sarah Lewis, wrote a book: The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. It is an in-depth look at the extraordinary number of failures of successful people. For example, Guglielmo Marconi is the noted inventor of the telegraph machine. However, for fifteen years prior to inventing the telegraph, Marconi dedicated his time to becoming an artist. In short, he failed at becoming an artist. In fact, in early mock ups of his telegraph machine, one can see re-purposed components of canvas and easels. What we mostly know about very successful people is their success stories. In actuality, the greater percentage of these people’s lives has often been spent in failure. When asked, most of them point to their failures as experiences that created in them the grit and perseverance that they needed eventually to master their goal.

Another workshop that caught my attention was called “The Genius Hour.” Basically, one school incorporated the Google-esque approach of giving employees 20% of their work time to work on an area of interest to the employee, non-work related. The school gave their students one hour, three times a week for ten weeks to work on anything that interested them. From learning an instrument to making a chess board, from studying nearby marshes to creating pottery, the children chose works that interested them and solidified their “love of learning.” 

At Aidan Montessori School, our integrated approach to curricula mirrors STEAM in many ways. We encourage risk taking, and therefore acknowledge failures as necessary and productive steps toward resilience. And, in many ways, most of a Montessori student’s day could be seen as genius hours as our children pursue the work that interests them. As interesting as it is to attend a conference that does not center on Montessori education, it is also affirming. Much of what one hears reinforces what we do here, at Aidan Montessori School, and demonstrates how other schools struggle to develop self-directed, student-centered, project-based, experiential learning experiences.

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