Smithsonian and Lenovo Partner on K–12 STEAM Initiative

A successful after-school pilot program in Palm Beach, FL, will soon be making its way across the country.

Students take a flight on the Wright Brothers online interactive as a Lenovo volunteer records distance and time. Photo courtesy of Lenovo

Thanks to a new partnership between the Smithsonian and Lenovo, students all over the country will get a chance to tackle hands-on STEAM projects, either during the school day or as part of after-school programs. The students will be using the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which was named in School Library Journal’s 2016 Top 10 Tech list. It’s a free online tool kit of digital museum resources, which allows users to curate content. Lenovo employee volunteers are helping to facilitate the lessons, along with classroom teachers and other educators. “We hope that the experiences that we bring to the students will open their eyes to a whole new world. With the resources and artifacts of the Smithsonian, we can get them excited about STEAM fields and just get them excited about learning,” says Suzie Koonce, Lenovo’s community partnership manager. Lenovo is funding the development of six STEAM activities, which were designed by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. These activities combine materials from the Learning Lab with hands-on projects. Through the projects, students are creating a 3-D model of an insect, combining circuitry and fabric to make wearable tech (aka e-textiles), and building a robot that makes art, which is known as an art bot.

Firefly earrings from the e-textiles Learning Lab activity collection. Photo: Tess Porter/Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

“They’re doing things they wouldn’t normally do in most classrooms,” says Cody Coltharp, a digital interactive designer at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. “You’re not often playing with circuitry, or modeling in 3-D.” Coltharp says a big part of his job is making sure that kids who are unfamiliar with this technology feel comfortable using it. The activities are designed for K–12. They’re simply scaled up or down depending on the age of the participants. About 500 students in sixth through eight grade who attend the Marjorie S. Fisher Boys & Girls Club in West Palm Beach, FL, took part in a pilot version of the program earlier this year. Coltharp says e-textiles were a big hit with those students, who made electronic hats, socks, and backpacks. The students were given an assortment of materials, such as fabric markers, LED lights, batteries, hot glue, and needles with conductive thread. “We basically had to drag kids out of there,” says Coltharp. “They just loved it. It was a really great environment for creation.”

A doodling artbot. Photo: Cody Coltharp/Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Dennis Young is the director of technology programs for Boys & Girls Club of Palm Beach County, FL. He says the activities really sparked something within the kids. “They got to be inquisitive,” reports Young. “They got to fail. They got to succeed. They got to do all these things that show that STEAM can be fun and exciting, that it can be hard, but it's rewarding. I think that’s what they really got out of it.” Young says they’ve been exposing their members to STEAM activities for at least three years. “These programs have been opening their eyes to opportunities beyond sports or music,” says Young. “They see that they have other avenues to express themselves.” Last month, about 1,500 students in North Carolina at the elementary, middle, or high school level were exposed to the activities. Coltharp says they gravitated toward the art bots and a virtual reality activity that allowed students to fly the Wright Brother’s plane. Throughout the year, the program will be making its way across the country. But anyone who wants to do these activities with their students can go to the Smithsonian Learning Lab for a facilitator’s guide with step-by-step explanations.

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