Full STEAM Ahead
by Theodora Malison; Photography by Jody Robinson

At Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, it’s not hard to envision a hands-on learning environment. In fact, from the time a student enters into a Germantown Academy classroom, they learn the fundamental values behind collaboration, communication and the “design thinking process,” which are applied to real-world situations.

Take a recent project completed by fourth grade students in fall 2016 as part of the STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics] program developed by Jessica Killo and Craig Newberger, Lower School teachers in the art and science departments, respectively. Students partnered with a non-profit dedicated to serving the welfare of animals, to solve a need for a group of rescue monkeys taken to a sanctuary in the United Kingdom. For some children, an international task this large would be daunting. For students at Germantown Academy, this kind of work is energizing and worthwhile.

“The kids used the IDEO design thinking process and began making connections with the monkeys, asking themselves how they could serve an unmet need,” Killo says. “After viewing slideshows and learning the names and stories of the rescued monkeys, the students began making thoughtful connections with the primates. A number of students recognized their similarities in biology to the monkeys, and imagined that monkeys might like to play in a similar way to young children. The students generated ideas about what we could do locally from here to reach out and help a population in need.”

From there, students began designing prototypes of various toys for the monkeys, realizing. these toys would serve two needs—the first being mental enrichment, which is part of the care animals receive at the sanctuary, and the second being entertainment, as the monkeys are unable to be released into the wild. Students sketched their ideas and then designed pieces from assorted materials including wood, cardboard, felt and tubing, and tested the durability of each finished product. Students confidently managed hot glue guns, sanding rasps, power drills and saws as they tinkered, tested, and engineered their designs.

“Some of the toys initially fell apart, so students had to go back to the drawing board and start the process all over again, while others needed only a few iterations,” Killo notes, adding that failure followed by determination is encouraged among the student body. “The students are in a safe place to make mistakes, and need to know it’s actually better to not always get it right the first time. You have to tell them ‘It’s OK it didn’t work,’ and challenge them as to why it didn’t work, encouraging their growth. When a student rethinks their project, they can change their idea and direction to improve it.”

Once the students designed successful toys, Killo says the toys were sent overseas to the sanctuary. In addition, they wrote letters to the sanctuary explaining how their creations could better serve the monkeys in need. The letters also included their gratitude for the work the sanctuary continually does.

It’s evident in the work completed by students in the STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics] program that critical thinking is not the only thing they ’re learning at Germantown Academy. Empathy hap- pens to be another.

“I actually like to use the word ‘STEAMpathy,’” says Newberger, when describing the premise behind the STEAM pro- gram and the curriculum at Germantown Academy. “We look at the jobs these students will have in their future. So many involve science and technology skills, but also involve being able to empathize with people. All projects in the STEAM program involve an empathy element.”

“The students have really embraced the idea of thinking about other people,” Killo adds, mentioning that each student is asked to come up with three questions of paramount importance to them, one of them aiding a need of someone else. “Some may have a realistic possibility of being answered while others may not. What’s important, however, is that that they are exploring innovation, creative problem solving, and making those connections to the needs of others.”

Killo and Newberger both state that the STEAM program was made possible through the school’s outstanding support for teacher ideas and innovation throughout the classroom, something that Killo says makes Germantown Academy an exceptional school.

“In some schools, education can be very compartmentalized,” she notes. “Students move through their school day learning clusters of isolated information in a strict curriculum. But, we don’t go through life like that. Life is intertwined with a multitude of information that we need to juggle, and sort and connect. If we want our children to be life-long learners, then we need to create learning that is more like life.”

From an admission perspective, Laura Martin, Director of Admission, recognizes much of the STEAM program methodology is already embodied in a Germantown Academy education. Similar to the children’s STEAM project for Animal Defenders International, the school sought to fill an unmet need for students.

“The program came from a direct need from what our students should be having in their Germantown Academy experience,” Martin says. As a Germantown Academy alumnus herself, she mentions the school’s commitment to experiential learning and collaboration. “We want kids to delve deeply into their learning to develop a true understanding and appreciation for what’s happening around them. Jessica [Killo] and Craig [Newberger] really spearheaded this project to be incorporated into our lower school curriculum. They’re implementing a program that is highly important to the children of today’s world.”

Indeed, children attending Germantown Academy are acquiring skills vitally needed for successful future careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. According to Sue Szczepkowski, Head of Lower School at Germantown Academy, students begin learning the fundamentals of coding in Kindergarten and gradually advance with each grade progression. Coding literacy is in its second year at Germantown Academy and Szczepkowski believes its integration in the STEAM program and lower school will certainly leave a lasting impact on students.

“We begin with unplugged lessons so students learn algorithms and directionality and from there, they transition to lessons on Code.org,” Szczepkowski states. “The lessons are very game-based, and allow students to learn primary concepts around coding. In the next couple of years, we’ll be looking to incorporate more project-based work around computer coding and have the students engage in developing their own applications.

“Coding is the language of computer science and it’s necessary for students to have early foundations of this type of literacy so they are at least not afraid of it,” she continues. “We want them to not only be consumers of technology, but also the creators of it as well. The STEAM program and curriculum here at Germantown Academy is connecting kids to the world with an empathetic and global perspective.”

Szczepkowski also adds that Killo’s department has remarkably integrated technology into the visual arts department with the tools such as computer-aided design, 3-D printers and laser cutters, to name a few.

Other noteworthy projects students at Germantown Academy completed utilizing STEAM and IDEO concepts and empathy, include the school’s most recent “design day,” a day devoted to collaboration in mixed age groups to develop problem-solving strategies involving questions pertaining to social and emotional learning. Szczepkowski says students were broken up into three groups where each group read a different book. Each book she says, contained a victim, a bully and a bystander, and students were asked to put themselves in the shoes of all three.

“After each book was read, the students then spent the whole day utilizing the design thinking process to eventually develop a rewrite of each character and what they would do in each situation,” she adds. “Because we received an amazing gift from two Germantown Academy alumni who created the Padcaster, students were able to record their discussions and reader’s theater reenactment.”

Although the design thinking process is no foreign concept to the business world, Szczepkowski says she remains amazed at how Germantown Academy students will harness empathy, ideas and resources to generate an end result—regardless of age or grade.

Martin agrees, also adding that third, fourth and fifth grade are great entry points into the Germantown Academy community. She says however, that it’s never too late to apply to GA, and that she looks forward to students both current and prospective being able to reap the benefits of a Germantown Academy education.

“Children start to have a better sense by these grades of how they learn well and what’s interesting to them,” she says. “They also have an opportunity to experience a really different learning environment that feels good. Whether you’ve been here for five minutes or five years, the minute you enter a Germantown Academy classroom, you’re a Germantown Academy student.

340 Morris Road Fort Washington, Pa. 19034
(215) 646-3300

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, February, 2017.