Blend Subjects And Build Skills
After a riveting end-of-year school performance, my nine-year-old son dragged me past the athletic track and koi pond and into a building where the Ambassador of Canada to Japan, Ian Burney, was admiring a display of 3D-printed objects.
Inspired by the French artist Fabrice Hybert’s Prototypes of Working Objects, the art project was a collaboration between my son’s third-grade class and the eighth graders. The younger students conceptualized and illustrated the objects and the older students transposed the designs into CAD software and then 3D printed them.
My son declared that this was his favourite activity of the school year because he got to sketch a brand-new idea with a classmate, hang out with an older student to develop the idea further and then see it being made into a real thing. As you might expect of a French school, art is a natural part of student life at Lycée Français International de Tokyo (LFIT), and they seamlessly take a cross-disciplinary approach that incorporates advances in science, technology and engineering.
STEM To STEAM
The term STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math — was introduced in 2001 by scientific administrators at the United States’ National Science Foundation with the aim of better preparing students for a global economy. Since then, schools around the world, including international schools in Tokyo, have adopted STEM-focused curricula to improve education in those subject areas and meet the needs of 21st-century employment.
The “A” for arts was added more than 10 years ago in recognition of the fact that language arts, social studies, physical arts, fine arts and music are completely integral to ingenuity and innovation. The purpose of STEAM is to introduce students to subjects using an interdisciplinary approach instead of presenting material in silos, as well as using hands-on activities and inquiry-based learning rather than studying outdated textbooks.
International schools in Tokyo offer a range of curricula that are based on educational standards from many countries, includingJapan, to students ranging from preschoolers to high schoolers. Schools that span all grades are more likely to make a STEAM curriculum optional during the primary school years, and required in the later years. Meanwhile, schools that solely cater to early learners are not as constrained by educational standards and have more freedom to integrate the concepts into their programs.
Thus, for example, GG International School’s full-time students are aged zero to six, and the school offers experiential learning through a comprehensive art to science education. As Jesus Estrada, program coordinator at the school, explained, art plays a strong role in the school’s curriculum. “STEAM shows us that art is indispensable; it has inherent value in the classroom. You can’t deny the impact art has on social–emotional learning and in educating the whole child.”
Columbia International School, based in Saitama Prefecture, is an Ontario-inspected overseas private school that follows the curriculum guidelines of the Ontario Ministry of Education. Tetsuya Morimata, manager at the school, said it incorporates STEAM in a number of ways. Their annual science fair involves students from grades four to 12. As a part of a cross-curricular and afterschool activity related to the fair, students built chairs out of paper products that were evaluated according to criteria such as carrying capacity, weight, size and creativity. This year, the school’s grade 10 science classes built model greenhouses. Morimata added that Columbia has been a 1:1 laptop school — that is, one laptop for each student — since 2001, and it works to embed computer technology into every subject.
Learn To Adapt
With a higher-than-average student turnover rate, international schools recognize that one of the most important skills that students must learn is to be adaptable. Through STEAM projects, students learn analytical and critical thinking, grit and resilience. In these politically turbulent times, these are important survival skills for students who are learning to become global citizens.
As Ken Sell, head of school at Aoba-Japan International School said: “We adopt the principles of STEAM as a philosophy of teaching and learning to guide student inquiry, dialogue and critical thinking.”
When it comes to STEAM, the subjects most requested by parents are coding and robotics. Both crucial to students’ potential future employment and developing into competent digital citizens, learning a programming language offers benefits — similar to learning a second language — that include problem-solving, analytical skills and logical thinking. And it can be introduced at a very young age: At Poppins Active Learning International School, they have seen that children as young as three years old can learn coding and robotics when it’s introduced in a fun environment.
Ideally, schools provide a creative space for students to explore and experiment without judgment, and mentors to support their interests. Some schools integrate STEAM into every classroom, some continue to use science classrooms and others have dedicated spaces.
The American School in Japan (ASIJ) hosts an impressive Creative Arts and Design Center with five design tech labs, a robotics center and a makerspace in their elementary library.
Now it’s easier than ever to expose students to a multitude of professions as more professionals, especially those from scientific fields, have made themselves available to schools through video chat sessions. ASIJ students have been able to speak with NASA engineers and LFIT students have had the opportunity to speak with a French astronaut.
The exposure to experts in those fields brings meaning and relevance to students’ learning experiences. Not every STEAM project or activity needs to tick all the acronym boxes; however, getting the students out of their desks and exposing them to real-world problems motivates them in ways that studying from a textbook can never do.
For The Future
While talking with representatives of a number of international schools, I asked them about future trends in STEAM education. Their predictions included teaching younger children hands-on science experiments, more art integration, big data management, artificial intelligence and a greater emphasis on project- and soft skill-based learning, which will help build flexible, creative thinkers.
In my experience, future trends tend to come from organizations outside schools. These include makerspaces, where children have more freedom to pursue their interests and facilitators aren’t constrained by “teaching to the test.”
One global issue that everyone is facing is the climate crisis. Children are well aware that they are being handed a burden that seems insurmountable. To that end, they want to do something about it now, not later, because they understand that time is short.
Efforts to reduce, recycle and reuse are quite common at schools, as are school gardens and weather stations. But more has to be done. As educators, parents and business leaders, we must listen to children and give them the support to participate in solving the problems before them.
For example, LFIT students built an autonomous greenhouse equipped with sensors to detect temperature and humidity, as well as motors for opening and closing the enclosure and watering the plants.
The British School in Tokyo “E-Cool” student activists are reminding fellow students and teachers to stop using single-use plastic and have banished vending machines from campus. If these types of efforts are any indication of interest, alongside future employment needs, then you can expect and should demand environmental and ecological classes.
As a parent, it’s hard not to imagine your child growing up to invent a device that cleans the air, come up with a cure for malaria, or develop the next virtual reality experience. Much like the days when every parent wanted their son or daughter to become a doctor or lawyer, it’s important that we don’t discount the trades.
One of the most important outcomes of STEAM is that we are coming back to hands-on learning and recognizing the need for skilled workers. Not every child wants to be the next Mars astronaut: some want to build the spacecraft, and we should celebrate and embrace that desire.
Being an expat provides a unique insight into the curricula and philosophies of school systems from around the world and the realization that no matter what country or culture children come from, they all share the same desire to learn in an inclusive, interest-driven environment that provides them with a sense of belonging, purpose and — dare I say? — fun.