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Yes, You Can Embrace STEAM in Pre-K Classrooms!

How one classroom brought hands-on practice, problem-solving, and creativity to young learners.

Margaret A Powers | July 4, 2016

Can pre-K students fully participate in STEAM activities? It's a question that is sometimes answered with a sigh or an outright no. However, my answer to this question is an emphatic yes!

Last year, our pre-K students engaged in a meaningful STEAM project. Our STEAM activities, focused on the Putumayo Kids curriculum, built on existing curricula in ways that deepened students' learning and allowed them to apply concepts through hands-on practice for the purpose of creating further understanding, solving problems, and sharing with others.

Our pre-K students had been learning about different countries and cultures using the Putumayo Kids curriculum. I sat down with their teachers to plan for the unit and discuss ways the STEAM disciplines could be infused in the students' work to extend their learning.

wonder workshop robotWe settled on robotics as a way to create an interdisciplinary project that would allow the students to express and share what they had been learning about a specific country in the Putumayo program. One class chose Bolivia and the other chose Brazil. The students were invited to use what they had learned to help program Dash, one of our Wonder Workshop robots, to perform a traditional dance that fit with the song for that country. 

Using their iPads, we researched together to find videos of traditional Brazilian and Bolivian dances, and, as part of the unit, the students also learned about their traditional clothing, food, schools, housing, and other aspects of the culture.

Using that knowledge, I challenged the students to design a costume for Dash that would represent the clothing people wear when performing traditional dances in those countries. Using tissue paper, felt, and other craft supplies, the students brainstormed and worked together to design beautiful outfits for their robots. 

Next, building on their previous explorations with Dash, we discussed what the robot could do:

  • Drive forward/backward
  • Turn right and left
  • Light up in different colors
  • Make sounds

Some students then worked together to decide which lights the robot should use during the dance and which sounds it should make, while other students worked with me to program the robot.

I created paper arrows to represent the main codes (forward/backward, turn left/right), and students laid them out on the floor for the dance while listening to the music from their country of study. I asked students to walk the codes and test the dance a few times, and we made additions and improvements based on their experiences. For example, as they walked the code, the students decided they needed to turn in circles in the dance, so we flipped a "turn right" code over to represent a "turn 360 degrees" code. They practiced a number of math concepts throughout this work: counting and discussing "more or less" and "longer or shorter."

Once the students were happy with how the dance looked, I showed them how we could take their plan, created with paper arrows, and put it into the iPad using the Blockly app. Finally, with their robots dressed in their outfits and programmed to dance, light up, and make sounds, they were ready for the performance!

We had an all-school coding celebration, and all the other grades had a chance to see the pre-K students' work with the Dash robots. Having this additional audience outside their classroom gave their work even more importance, and the students felt very proud of it!

These types of interdisciplinary projects help add meaning to each discipline, so the costume is not created simply for fun (a great cause in itself!) but also because the robot needs to look like a dancer from Bolivia/Brazil, and students have a chance to apply their math and programming skills to the authentic problem of, How can we make the robot dance? This project could be extended further to involve additional props, which could require engineering and art to design and build, and the students could write about their dancing robots for a literacy component.