Screen Free STEAM

In the process of developing the ESSTEAM Lab’s 3 year program (more below), I’m aiming to make the K-2 program as screen free as possible. This might sound contradictory, given that technology is taught as part of STEAM. In today’s world, most people associate the word “technology” with electronics: cellphones, computers, TV, etc. But is that really what technology is?


The actual definition(s) of technology from Merriam-Webster:

1a: the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area, 1b: a capability given by the practical application of knowledge. 2: a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge. 3: the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor.


Notice the word “electronics” aren’t included in the definition(s) of technology. Technology is about knowledge and application, which can be accomplished with screens (electronics) or without. I find value in teaching STEAM with electronics, including coding and robotics, given that ESSTEAM Lab programs are designed to give students the tools to succeed in life and the prevalent use of electronics in society today. The 3-5, 6-8, and 9-11 grade programs will focus on teaching responsible use and practical and innovative application of technology including electronics, but the K-2 program will use little to no electronics.

Why screen free for K-2?

The K-2 program, FUNdamentals, will focus on developing curiosity and teaching the fundamentals of ESSTEAM concepts. There is no need to rely on electronics to accomplish the goals at this level in the program. Studies have shown the addictive power of electronics and the longer term psychological effects of too much screen time, and while screen use during the school day and at home is beyond the scope of our program, students will have at minimum time with ESSTEAM Lab to focus on developing relationships with each other rather than with electronics. Additionally, one study found that countries that invested heavily in computer technology for schools showed “no appreciable improvements” in reading, math or science, and that technology “is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students” (source). With that, I believe that electronics are still incredibly useful– when students are more developmentally capable of using them as a tool rather than entertainment. As this article quotes Dr. Hutton, it’s “not so much ‘screens are bad,’ but ‘screens are not such a good idea right now.’ Akin to driving a car not bad, but driving at age 3-5 not such a good idea…..From a brain science point of view, what young children need is ‘experiences that are going to reinforce these networks more robustly.’ If screens are taking the place of interacting with caregivers or talking or playing, children may not be getting the full benefit of the astonishing neural plasticity and potential of those early years.”

Graduating to using electronics: why teach coding?

Part of using electronics as a tool rather than entertainment involves interaction on the part of the student (user). By third grade, compared the K-2 graders, I believe students have developed a better capability for the communication (especially written), collaboration, and critical thinking skills necessary to use electronics as a tool. By this age, given students development, how electronics are used can outweigh concerns about screen time.

In today’s world, the prevalence of electronics requires that students are competent in responsible use and applications of those electronics to be successful in career/life, as well as an informed and contributing citizen. While many students may not use the specific digital skill of coding post-education, learning the basics of coding teaches students logical thinking and problem solving, skills valuable in all career fields and in higher education. You can read here for more information about the benefits of teaching kids coding.

The 3 year program explained

While based in CA, programs are conducted on traveling basis, where different classes are taught a different schools each afternoon during a season (fall and spring). In the summer of 2020, I’ll begin to teach programs wherever we move to, and I’m designing the programs to operate on a 3 year schedule in a set location.

As mentioned earlier, classes will be taught with multiple grades, K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-11. Generally, the same ESSTEAM topics will will be taught at every program level, though the specific content and skills will differ at every program level. Theoretically, the idea is that a student could enter the program in kindergarten, and not repeat an activity over the 12 years, though by the time they would reach 11th grade they would have seen topics (such as circuits or coding) repeatedly at different levels. This model serves to reinforce both content and skills, allowing the students to grow with the curriculum.

Over the three years, a large variety of ESSTEAM topics will be covered, as well as Maker skills such as laser cutting or fabric arts (knitting or crocheting). Some topics, such as robotics or biomimicry, will be taught every year in a slightly different way or using different materials/tools, some topics (like entrepreneurship or social and emotional learning) will be integrated throughout a variety of other topics, and yet more topics will be covered just once every three years (pottery for example). In addition to the ESSTEAM Lab content knowledge, each program level will focus on a skill that comes from our version of the design thinking process. I’ve already mentioned that the K-2 FUNdamentals program will focus on developing curiosity, while the 3-5 will focus on critical thinking, 6-8 collaboration, and 9-11 will focus on practical applications of conservation and making changes. I’m hoping to implement this curriculum for a Monday-Thursday program, and leave Fridays as a free choice time to allow students of all ages to pursue their own interests.

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