Seeds to Sprouts: Growing Ideas Into Great Content

Three gardening tips for growing STEAM education:

  1. Collaboration catalyzes success.
  2. Focus on providing one service well before spreading your efforts too thin.
  3. To write great curriculum, you must be involved in its facilitation.
An amphipod brought into focus

In the summer of 2013, when we became interested in commercial aquaponic farming, we researched how to assemble a computer-controlled aquaponics system. During this process, we learned about microcontrollers and low voltage circuits; water chemistry and aquatic organisms; and developed an appreciation for the less than charismatic aquatic creatures: worms, amphipods, ostracods, and cyclops.

We learned about microcontrollers and low voltage circuits, water chemistry and aquatic organisms.

Around summer 2014, we couched the commercial aquaponic project, but wanted to continue learning about these systems. Upon being presented with the opportunity to teach an after-school enrichment program, we quickly decided to use our new knowledge as a basis for introducing a wide range of STEAM activities to students.

As former summer camp counselors, The Tech Monsters had plenty of experience making learning casual and fun. The first session was rocky and consisted of many learning experiences. We applied these lessons to the second session, but it was still pretty rough. By the fifth session, though, we had the bones of our curriculum, which students see today.

Our first module consists of eight 50-minute labs in which each student constructs a small aquatic ecosystem, builds a computer, and generates their own unique data set. Each lab scaffolds upon the previous one. Over the course of eight weeks, students build and operate their own biological research station.

Each lab focuses on one subpart of students’ research stations. First, students build a small aquarium that we call a Monstrarium. It contains many microorganisms: whole colonies of tiny monsters. Students in subsequent labs investigate their Monstrarium using digital probes and microscopes. Students record light and temperature readings over time, put them in a database, and ultimately visualize their data using Mathematica.

A plot of light and temperature data created in Mathematica

In addition to our eight-week sessions, The Tech Monsters have conducted collaborations with our local Girl Scout troops. This year, we provided an activity booth at the troops’ STEAM kickoff. At this event, we brought microscopes and introduced the attendees to some of our charismatic aquatic creatures.

Microscope exploration workshop

We also organize Monstrarium workshops. During these short workshops, participants construct their own Monstrarium, which they get to take home. Students learn about the ecosystems and basic water chemistry contained in the Monstrariums. Our sessions normally consist of third through sixth graders, but the Monstrarium workshops work well for students of all ages.

This upcoming year, we are looking forward to continuing to collaborate with Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska and also begin working with Omaha Outward Bound School.

In the future, we hope to grow our program to meet the needs of more learners. To do this, we plan on developing additional modules and networking with more organizations to create memorable experiences. Specifically, we hope to create more eight-week sessions that build on the skills presented in our first module. These will explore individual topics in greater detail, such as developing microscope skills or programming additional sensors. We are especially excited about using battery packs and PiCams to make time-lapse recordings of nature.

Eventually, we also hope to have computer-controlled gardens that students operate at their schools throughout the year. Produce from these gardens could then be sold to the local community to fund students’ classrooms, much like a bake sale does now.

Eventually, we hope to have computer-controlled gardens that students operate at their schools throughout the year.

Through these experiences, we have learned a lot about growing great STEAM education. For instance, we now know that effective STEAM education is too big for one organization to champion, so collaboration is key.

We also learned that before we can introduce more variety in our labs, we have to consistently provide a great introductory encounters. While there are many exciting projects we would like to present, we want to make sure our foundation is strong before moving too far ahead.

Feedback is key to quickly improving an engaging experience. In particular, being a facilitator gives you the experience necessary for making informed changes to a curriculum. To write great content, you must personally be involved in its facilitation. Each delivery provides invaluable feedback that one can use to revise and improve the experience. The first few times will always be rough, but persistence and revision will lead to great content.

About the bloggers:

Michael

Michael, Co-Founder of The Tech Monsters

Michael develops curriculum and facilitates educational experiences with an emphasis on biology. His green thumb and love for invertebrates have been encouraged by his family. Michael grew up dreaming of being a genetic engineer, but instead studied brains in college. While pursuing his degree, Michael was fortunate enough to take a few elective courses in programming. These experiences made one thing abundantly clear: in the modern world, not being able to read or write code is to be illiterate. In the words of sci-fi visionary Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Michael sees The Tech Monsters as a way to increase technological literacy and embolden kids to create things that work like magic.
Miles

Miles, Co-Founder of The Tech Monsters, @techmonsters

Miles develops curriculum and facilitates educational experiences with an emphasis on technology. Thanks to the support of his family, Miles grew up attached to a keyboard and mouse. Thanks to gaming, at a young age he became fascinated with computers. Miles enjoys continuing to develop new skills and sharing them with students. He believes that early positive experiences with technology build comfort and curiosity in kids’ minds. Curious people learn for fun and enjoy solving problems. They become leaders in their communities and seek to make the world a better place by working to understand problems and applying the right technology to find solutions. Miles believes that technology is a tool in building a more deeply connected and curious community.