Category: STEAM

Curiosity Never Grows Old

Since I was little, I have loved to draw. I enjoyed everything about it. I wanted to learn how to make animated movies but never did. Now as an art teacher and technology teacher, I have access to great technologies that can help me. In fact, I spent last year teaching K-5 students coding in ScratchJr, Hopscotch, and Tynker.

This summer I decided to take what I already know about coding from those applications and do what I’ve always wanted to do: make an animated movie. I created this animation using Scratch.

I drew all the sprites, customized the background, and did it. It’s only one minute long, but I am so proud of myself and I’m thrilled with the result. I am delighted to share that movie here:


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

STEAM Power for the 21st-Century

Today’s workforce requires graduates with 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation. These skills are needed in both the private and public sectors, but many of today’s graduates don’t have them (Jolly, 2016).

Today’s graduates are not qualified to fill many tech positions in the public and private sectors.

Hoping to solve this problem, a new movement focuses on educating students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Yet even with continuing unemployment, many tech companies are still unable to find graduates with the 21-century skills they need (Jolly, 2016).

STEAM: Today’s Answer to STEM?

We need innovators and creative thinkers to help transform our economy. In the 20th-century, that transformation came about through science and technology. In this century it’s art and design that are poised to help facilitate that change (“STEM to STEAM”, n.d.).

This understanding has fostered the STEAM education movement, which adds art, design, and the humanities to the four STEM subjects (Johnson Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015).


Hierarchy of Education Subjects, Based on Robinson, 2006

Teachers and administrators face increasing pressure from policymakers to meet benchmarks in proficiency and growth. The result is more time spent practicing test taking skills and less time spent in student-centered, inquiry-driven lessons. This narrow-minded focus on testing leads to narrow-minded thinking. The result? “Young Americans are being educated out of creativity” (Pomeroy, 2012).

We need creative students, though. Creativity is closely related to divergent thinking, the kind of right-brained thinking that leads to fresh ideas and new perspectives (Connor, Karmokar, & Whittington, 2015). When coupled with convergent thinking, the partnership produces the kind of innovation we are seeking (Maeda, 2012).

Creativity, “the process of coming up with original ideas that have value,” is now “as important in education as literacy” (Robinson, 2006). Unfortunately, the hierarchy in education places math and languages in a position of importance above the arts. This hierarchy denies

the importance of the disciplines coming together. Yet where the different disciplines come together, like in STEAM education, is where creativity flourishes (Robinson, 2006).

Where Is STEAM’s Place if We’re Prepping for the Test?

Research shows that students who have a background in arts do better on standardized tests (Johnson et al., 2015). They are also leaders in entrepreneurship and inventing. Michigan State University researchers studied a group of MSU Honors College graduates. Those with arts exposure were more likely graduate from a STEM program and to own businesses or patents (Lawton, Schweitzer, LaMore, Roraback, & Root-Bernstein, 2013).

Artistic endeavors while young helped foster the kind of innovation that creates jobs and invigorates business. “So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes” (Lawton et al., 2013).

My Own Experience as a STEM / STEAM Educator

My current position is that of a K-5 STEM educator. In my role, I teach Project Lead The Way, a national curriculum with the aim of helping students learn 21st-century skills.

Last year, my kindergarteners learned about pushes and pulls. Their final project was to design and build a model that would move some blocks up a ramp. When I taught this unit at my first school during the first half of the year my students were successful. They all met the design challenge.

Before I taught at my second school, though, I had some time for reflection. I made a few simple additions to my supplies for building day. I brought along some feathers, pipe cleaners, pom poms, and cutoffs from cardboard tubes. I did not tell the students what they were to be used for and the design criteria remained the same: they were to build a model that could push or pull the blocks up the ramp.

The results were fantastic! Yes, they all moved their blocks up the ramp but they became inventors in the process. One student added a “monster sprayer” to her model. A second told me, “And this is a purse; you can carry it.” One of my young engineers told me, “It has a camera, and a hand for picking up rocks, and a hammer for smashing rocks.”

Looking Forward

I feel privileged to be at the beautiful intersection of two STEAM disciplines. Trained as a Visual Arts Educator and earning a master’s in educational technology, I am in a position to infuse art into any STEM lesson that I can. If I am ever back in an art room, my goal will be to put technology into the hands of my art students. Either way, I look forward to educating tomorrow’s creative world changers.


Connor, A. M., Karmokar, S., & Whittington, C. (2015). From STEM to STEAM: Strategies for enhancing engineering & technology education. International Journal of Engineering Pedagogy (iJEP), 5(2), 37-47. doi:10.3991/ijep.v5i2.4458

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Jolly, A. (2016, April 29). STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong? Retrieved from

Lawton, J., Schweitzer, J., LaMore, R., Roraback, E., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2013, October 22). A young Picasso or Beethoven could be the next Edison. Retrieved from

Maeda, J. (2012, October 02). STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 Is Key to Building a Strong Economy. Retrieved from

Pomeroy, S. R. (2012, August 22). From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand. Retrieved from

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Retrieved from

STEM to STEAM. (n.d.). Retrieved from


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

We Made a Maker Faire!

Our flyer was created by MAETy1 students

One of the bigger surprises of my on-campus experience at Michigan State University was learning that my classmates and I would be making a maker faire. With some help, our group of eight students did most of the work: overseeing the logistics, advertising, planning and running all the booths for visitors.

The Maker Movement and Maker Faires

Making is an important part of my teaching practice. You can read more about it in an earlier blog post I wrote. According to the theory of constructivism, when people make something, they build their own knowledge. They construct new knowledge based on prior knowledge, through direct instruction and through inquiry-based learning (“Constructivism,” 2016).

This understanding has helped spark the Maker Movement and the relatively recent popularity of maker faires around the world. Maker faires are gatherings that range in size and scope, but often include a combination of hands-on activities and demonstrations.

Our Faire

Our maker faire was small, with four booths run by our eight students. Nevertheless, it was well-received by those who attended. Our visitors were engaged and seemed to struggle productively, learn and have fun.

If I were to help plan a maker faire again, I hope we would have more than nine days to plan it. I would include ample signage throughout our event area to help ensure that people could find their way around. As it was, I made a few signs even as the event was getting started.

Our passport was created by MAETy1 students

I would also advertise it as widely as possible. Many people in my cohort shared on social media and in the local news outlets, but more time would allow us to share even more.

Through this event, I learned that it is difficult to keep everyone in the loop when there are eight people involved in planning. When it came to the day of the event, though, it was extremely helpful to have more people pitching in. If I were to do this again, I would request as much community assistance as possible.

Our Booth

My partner Kate Wojtas and I planned and ran a tower building challenge. Participants built a tower of spaghetti and marshmallows, as tall as possible. They had the opportunity to do iterations of their building, and learned about engineering principles, including trusses and cross braces.

If visitors struggled or got stuck, they were ready for teaching by telling (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000). We then asked some guiding questions like, “What can you do to make this more stable, so it doesn’t fall?” We also gave a little information about engineering design, if necessary.

I enjoyed celebrating with builders of all ages. One of the most exciting aspects of watching learners at a maker activity was seeing how they are empowered. When faced with a challenge, our participants struggled, prevailed, and learned that they could do it. Even when their tower fell down, we celebrated with, “You tried! You can try again! How can you do it differently this time?”

Make a Maker Activity

You don’t have to plan an entire maker faire to engage learners in thought-provoking inquiry-based activities. If you are looking for such an activity for your classroom or maker event, tower building challenges are a great option. Here is a link our brainstorming document and to our plan:

Tower Advice

Plan for participants to spend 15-20 minutes on this activity. This activity is sticky, so have hand wipes available for participants, check the floor regularly for dropped marshmallows, and have a cleaning solvent ready to clean the tables at the end. Also, do not expect to reuse materials between participants because used marshmallows are sticky. Really, really sticky.

Preparation and practice are key! Preparation for this activity reminded me again of the importance of trying out an activity before introducing it to students. Even if you have researched the activity or done it before, practice it again. Try to anticipate learners’ questions.

Even after my own preparation and trials, we made a big change to our plan. Some young people tested our activity before we took it to the faire, which was incredibly helpful. Based on that practice, we changed our plan from using straws to using spaghetti. Because spaghetti is brittle, it adds to the challenge and allows participants to easily use different sizes of spaghetti for building.

If you don’t have the opportunity to evaluate your challenge with practice participants first, try doing it again from a different perspective. Literally, try sitting in a low chair to see what your event looks like from a young child’s perspective.

Finally, be engaged and have fun!


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Constructivism. (2016, September 08). Retrieved from


Unless otherwise captioned, all images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

I’m Going to Learn to Code Arduino!

For my summer 2017 classes in my coursework at Michigan State University (Master of Arts in Educational Technology), I am being challenged to learn something new using only online resources, such as YouTube, my professional learning network, and Internet help forums. When this challenge was issued, I immediately gravitated toward learning to program Arduino.


This period in education is an exciting one, one in which many students have technology at their fingertips. Although social media can be a distraction, it can also be a tool in the classroom. According to Ito et al. (2013), we can utilize social media for connected learning, and through connected learning, some equity gaps we see in school can be closed.

Wealthy families have already taken advantage of technology to provide additional learning experiences for their children, widening the equity gap. Nevertheless, through the power of connected learning, all students have access to a network of peers and caring adults. When using social media for learning, subject matter becomes “interest-powered,” relevant, and interesting to the learner (Ito et al., 2013, p. 4).

This is an ambitious project; however, by undertaking this, I will gain meaningful and firsthand experience with the power of connected learning. And through this experience, I expect to become an avid proponent of this method of learning.


I am an artist and maker. I especially love to make things that are 3-dimensional and interactive, such as a sculpture I once made. When the viewer pressed a button, a light illuminated the inside of the sculpture for a few seconds, then flickered and went out. That light was controlled by Arduino.

An Arduino Uno microcontroller controlled the light in this sculpture

The making of that sculpture was exciting, and allowed me to grow as an artist. I learned about making boxes, pushed my Photoshop skills, and designed and crafted a mechanism that made the images inside change, among other skills. However, when it came to that Arduino, I was stuck. Without time to learn the processes of coding and soldering that would be required to make that Arduino do what I wanted, I solicited the services of my husband to make the electronics work. Many times I have reflected on that sculpture as one of my favorite artworks that I have made, but that at the same time showed one of my shortcomings as a maker.


Arduino is a favorite tool of artists and makers. It is a programmable microcontroller. While I am still figuring out what exactly that means, I do understand that it involves a small piece of hardware (smaller than a phone) that can be programmed using Arduino software. It can process a variety of inputs, and give some sort of output.

Although Arduino is capable of producing many types of output, I will program my Arduino to do something with light. I plan to use my newly programmed microcontroller to illuminate a tutu that my daughter has. There are many resources on the Internet for using Lilypad Arduino, including an article by Gadget Hacks, How to Embed Lights Into Fabric and Clothes with LilyPad.

Here is just one example of an Arduino microcontroller being used by an artist. This image is of a Lilypad Arduino in use:

To get started with preparing for this project, I bookmarked just a few of the many Arduino resources that are available on the Internet:

Related Posts

This is the first of three posts about learning to code the Arduino. You can read an update about my early progress in my second post. You can read about how it all worked out in my third post.


Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., . . . Watkins, S. (2013). Connect learning: An agenda for research and design: A research synthesis report of the Connected Learning Research Network (summary) (Rep.). Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.


Iwasaki, O. (Photographer). (2009). A flexible Lilypad Arduino sewn in textiles with 20 LEDs which fade in and out at random [digital image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons website:

All other images in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.