If I could summarize how I approach setting up systems and procedures for the STEAM/Maker classroom, it would be to increasingly shift responsibility to the students. My goal is to set up an effective routine and clear expectations for students in order to free them up to focus on the active task of learning. Thought initially time and effort-intensive to set up, once established it can save time and open up more opportunities. I’ll break down a few tips of what I use when I teach within the categories of prep, introducing the lesson, learning during the lesson, and cleanup.
Keeping students in the loop: I prefer being open with students about what is coming up on the calendar for several reasons; for one, it reduces the “What are we doing ____?” questions, as well as helps when we take time to review the sequence of projects/learning.
Introducing the Lesson (or the program/year)
Expectations: I have three expectations for my students: Respect themselves, respect other people, and respect their environment. When introducing these expectations at the beginning of our time together, I ask students to share what some examples of things that meet or don’t meet these expectations might be, such as not touching another person’s project without permission or making sure to wear eye protection when needed. Another part of this conversation includes the consequences of not meeting these expectations.
Safety: We revisit these expectations briefly for each lesson, discussing both lesson specific expectations as well as safety expectations and awareness. Generally, I’ve found that as a group, students are able to share most relevant safety concerns, and I just need to highlight ones that may not be obvious. For example, if we’re using a hot glue gun, the first several times students need to be able to share where the hot parts are, how to correctly hold it, and where it will be plugged in.
Early arrivals/early finishers: In addition to the above, I like to have a simple, student guided activity set up for students who arrive early to programs or for students who finish their project early. Occasionally, their task if they finish early will be to help other students rather than an self-guided activity. My current favorite for students who arrive early to my after school programs is Plank Puzzles from Keva Planks; follow them on social media to see some of their challenges.
During the lesson
During the lesson, after I’ve introduced it, I try to be less “Sage on the Stage” and more “Guide on the Side”. That means I’m available to help as needed, but I try to let the students learn by doing, even if that means learning from perceived failure or not meeting the lesson requirements at first. As part of this approach, I have a rule of “Ask three before me“, where if a student has a question, they try to ask up to three other students for help and an answer before coming right to me. This allows students to collaborate and learn with each other, taking charge of their own projects. Having said that, this is not a hard and fast rule of mine; I need to individually judge the situation and student to know when they need my help vs a fellow student. I also make sure to be checking in with students throughout the project or lesson to see where they are at, how it’s going, and if they need any advice.
If for some reason I need to get everyone’s attention during the lesson, I use the attention getter: “Eyes high” “Hands fly” call and response. Particularly when being hands on with a building project or when using laptops, I’ve found it hard for students to pause to listen to an announcement, so the expectation is that eyes and hands actually raise up from what they’re doing. I try to use this sparingly for only important announcements. Since I typically have a class smaller than 15, if the announcement is not time or safety sensitive, I tend to use my check-in wanderings to also share the announcement with individual students or groups.
Transitions: I like to give students several heads up about transitions, typically around 10 minutes and five minutes. Depending on the project, I may also give a “time is half up” announcement. On occasion, I have a student or two that I find requires more advance notice or time to clean up or wrap up their project, in which case I approach them individually and make sure to get an acknowledgement of the transition.
Students will have been told during the introduction if their project is a take home project, multi-class project (and if so, where to place it until next time), or something that stays in the classroom, whether completed or dismantled. In our programs, we also try to teach students what materials are reusable, recyclable, compostable, e-waste, and general landfill waste. Our goal is to use reusable materials first, then compostable or recyclable, and then what would go into a landfill. If students need a sign that helps them know what goes where, one resource you could use in your own classroom or community is the StopWaste sign generator at http://www.stopwaste.org/signmaker using your local waste management guidelines to know which materials are recyclable in your area.