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The SAM Blog

STEM/STEAM Learning Teacher Interview: Why Educators Need to Power Through

STEM/STEAM Learning Teacher Interview: Why Educators Need to Power Through

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” ― William Arthur Ward

When it comes to inspirational stories, some teachers have the ability to wow you. This week I was very grateful to get a chance to speak to STEAM superstar Julia Dweck, an elementary school teacher from Pennsylvania who implemented SAM Labs bluetooth blocks, app and curriculum into her classroom. Julia made me realize that one of the key ingredients of STEAM learning is the ability to explore. Whether it is the teacher or the student exploring the technology, topic or concept, exploration is crucial to learning and growing, and this is the magic that creates the ability to engage, problem-solve, collaborate and be creative, among many other soft skills.

In previous blogs we looked at the key differences between STEM and STEAM, how SAM Labs seeks to create authentic learning experiences, and ways to prepare students for the future workforce. This week is a little different as we went straight to the source for an interview with Julia Dweck who offers a truly authentic teacher voice and proves time and time again why all this talk about STEM or STEAM is worth the conversation. Here is what she had to say.

Julia’s Teaching Background

SAM Labs: Could you tell us about yourself and your teaching background?

Julia Dweck: I have been a gifted teacher for the past 14 years and began teaching two years before that. I found my comfort zone in the area of gifted instruction because it allowed me to explore students’ gifts and help them grow.

I began exploring STEM/STEAM and maker education as a way to tap into multiple modalities of learning and gifts. My work with students has drawn the attention of publishers and educational technology companies, which led me into the art of curriculum design.


Traditional Education vs. Education Technology: How Teaching has Changed

SL: In your years of teaching, how has your profession changed in the context of needing more education technology?

JD: When I first began teaching, I was a first and second grade teacher in the regular education setting. Even back then, I encouraged students to get out of their seats and explore. Play and hands-on learning has always been the natural way we learn from our earliest years back as toddlers. But so much has changed with the advent of the iPhone.

In the not so distant past, robots were something foreign to everyday households and schools, at best, they were windup or battery operated toys in the home. But prior to that, you would be more likely to find robots somewhere like NASA. After the advent of Hour of Code, things began to change rapidly. We went from initially programming on the computer, to programming robots, to programming to create and innovate.


Creating Teacher Confidence, Managing Workload, and Student Engagement

SL: How important are things like increasing teacher confidence, decreasing workload, and increasing student engagement to education?

JD: A teacher’s workload can create a sense of overwhelming dread in having to take on just one more thing. Having strong administrative support in the form of professional development goes a long way towards ushering in technology among teachers with little to no background experience. And, of course, giving teachers the time to explore the technology with their students is crucial.”

Students, on the other hand, want to dive right in. This generation has been raised on technology and experiences with little-to-no intimidation navigating the planes of an unknown. Once students understand the ins and outs of SAM Labs, it can be used as the undergird for cross-curricular instruction.
“This generation has been raised on technology and experiences with little-to-no intimidation navigating the planes of an unknown.”

Implementing STEM/STEAM in the Classroom: A Look Back

SL: Since you first introduced the STEM/STEAM approach to your school, how do you feel now, have your views changed at all?

JD: I used to feel that I had to be the one trouble-shooting all the problems. Working with SAM Labs, I have become more confident in asking the right questions to guide students rather than show them what they did wrong. This is where the real learning happens. Students need to feel the edges of frustration, but then move past it by listening to each other, observing what could be improved, and fearlessly making those changes. This is where true persistence is built through rigor. This mental fortitude will carry over and serve my students in their lives moving forward.


Creating Student Engagements to Remember

“Working with SAM Labs, I have become more confident in asking the right questions to guide students rather than show them what they did wrong.”

SL: Could you share a specific story or example of a student’s engagement with a STEAM kit? Something that was unique or unusual?

JD: A few years back, I had a student with selective mutism who had never spoken to me. But the most amazing thing happened when given SAM Labs on an “innovate and create” project. Suddenly, there were questions he needed to ask me and his group members and there was so much he wanted to express about his creation. It felt as if he’d been turned on in a way I’d never seen previously.

STEM/STEAM = Creativity and Problem-solving

Part One: How STEM/STEAM teaches Creativity and Problem-solving

SL: What is it about hands on physical STEM/STEAM learning that works for teaching creativity and problem solving? Why do you think it works??

JD: When we can pick up something and explore it with our hands we add a heightened dimension to problem-solving and creative-thinking. It enables us to observe what may be missed by the mind’s eye alone. Bringing ideas into the real world elevates motivational levels and is correlated with an increased desire to create and innovate.”

There is an associated spike in self confidence to see what was once just a spark of an idea come to life in the real world. More importantly, when students design to improve living for others, this sense of urgency and authenticity increases sustained rigor in problem solving and creative flow. Students feel what they’re doing really matters in the world outside our doors.


Part Two: How SAM Labs’ STEM/STEAM approach

SL: What made you reach out to SAM Labs in terms of how it promotes the values of STEM/STEAM?

JD: Traditionally, students using iPads and computers were deemed passive receptacles of information or programmed in isolation. SAM Labs brings the world of coding to life in real and tangible ways. It has also brought my students together, enabling them to collaborate on a project in ways that highlight their individual talents and skills. One student can be on the iPad testing connections, while another could be drawing a model and a third could be building it with SAM Labs’ real-world parts.

I also love the way it integrated the virtual and hands-on world. It begins at the iPad, but the real-world parts allow students to explore and create. I had never seen anything like SAM Labs before. Suddenly, my students were prototyping their ideas in ways that simulate real world innovation and creation. They were no longer relegated to their imaginations and 2D drawings. Their ideas came to life and SAM Labs allowed them the opportunity to test and iterate in ways previously impossible.

Check out this blog article: Teaching STEAM in the Classroom: 5 Ways to Create Authentic Learning Experiences


STEM/STEAM: The challenges fitting into your curriculum

SL: In terms of the overall approach and challenges to fitting STEM/STEAM into your curriculum, how and where did the SAM Labs solution fit in meeting your requirements?

JD: I am a gifted support teacher, so my parameters are a bit different than the regular education teacher. I feel fortunate that I can focus on students’ problem-solving, higher-level thinking, and creative-thinking skills so sorely lacking in traditional closed-end classroom assignments. With SAM Labs, students realize that there’s more than one solution to a problem and are challenged to bring their schema to the table, but then expand upon it through the unique perspectives of others in their group.

Make a note to check out last week’s blog post: Best STEM, STEAM and Learn to Code Resources of 2019


Implementing STEM/STEAM into the classroom

SL: Could you describe how you and your school implemented and used SAM Labs STEAM kit?

JD: SAM Labs is a very user-friendly product that offered me the confidence to explore complex topics and provocative ideas with my students. It is also extremely durable and can take the rough and tumble handling of the many students that I work with each day.

SAM Labs has become the cornerstone of our “make and innovate” program. It engages learners and captivates their imaginations. I’ve been using SAM Labs with all three grade levels I teach, third, fourth, and fifth, because of the way it easily differentiates to meet the developmental and cognitive needs of variously aged students.


Specific Techniques to Bringing STEM/STEAM kits in the Classroom

SL: Is there a particular technique or approach that you use with SAM Labs’ STEM/STEAM kits that you think other educators should know?

JD: I have students go through many of the lessons in the SAM Labs lesson bank in order to train them (and me) on the technology. Once a level of confidence has been reached, students can then brainstorm ways that SAM Labs can be used to explore concepts they’re learning about in the classroom in math, language arts, science or social studies. Once students begin to see the connections across the curriculum, we head into phase 2, applying SAM Labs to conquer the bigger world.

In Phase 2, students take concepts learned in the classroom and cross-reference them with SAM Labs to either a) improve life, or b) solve a problem. Once we identify the audience for the product, students learn all that they can about that demographic. This builds an understanding of how to meet the needs of their “customer”, but more importantly, it develops empathy. Students are thinking beyond their own needs to improve life on our planet for others. The integration of the curriculum happens naturally and authentically. It aligns with the real world in which problems aren’t always neatly solved. But it is inherently more satisfying than any worksheet.


Science + Technology + Engineering + Math + Arts – The impact of applying the arts

“Life is an elegant weaving of the arts, sciences and humanities, infusing it with a layered richness and breadth.”

SL: Have you noticed any impact on teachers and students in applying the arts in STEM/STEAM lessons?

JD: I think back to the original innovators, like Da Vinci, who was deemed a Renaissance man, for the ways in which he cross-hatched science, technology, engineering, art and math. This is the type of learning which I strive to achieve in our classroom. As teachers, we are preparing students for a world in which the various disciplines aren’t neatly compartmentalized. Rather, life is an elegant weaving of the arts, sciences and humanities, infusing it with a layered richness and breadth. This is the world we need to prepare our students to enter and conquer.

Check out our blog: The 2019 Student STEAM Invention Round-Up: 7 Innovative SAM Labs Projects

“If “Art” is the core of our collective conscience and heart, then and SAM Labs is the brain.”

SAM Labs invites students into a safe platform that simulates the real world and empowers children with the tools to make a difference. Used constructively, technology can mitigate negative influences and cultivate positive differences. It is the “Art” in STEAM that infuses humanity. Utilizing SAM Labs, teachers seek to promote not only aesthetically pleasing or accurate outcomes, but results that drive us to be greater thinkers, philosophers, poets and writers. If “Art” is the core of our collective conscience and heart, then SAM Labs is the brain. I believe that more teachers are becoming aware of the need for the two to work together in unison.

More Resources for STEAM Education

If you would like to find out more about the power of STEAM and how to start your own STEAM program, feel free to reach out to one of our Education Consultants or check out our resources below:

We would like to thank Julia Dweck for dedicating part of her time to us!

Have you or your students created something to inspire new users of SAM Labs’ STEAM kit? Share your ideas with us in the comments section below or tweet us and tag @SAMLabs and use #samstersCreate.

About Julia Dweck

Julia Dweck is an elementary school teacher from Allentown, Pennsylvania and an early adopter of STEAM learning in her school. Julia is a passionate, gifted teacher with 16 years experience in K-5. You can check out her latest projects on her Twitter account https://twitter.com/GiftedTawk.