STEM, STEAM, Fab, PBL, & MakerEd

STEM and STEAM and Fab, oh my!

The conversation about STEM / STEAM/ Fab / PBL/ MakerEd has been going on since the very first teacher thought up these fancy terms and labeled the wonderful learning that was happening in their classrooms and STEM (or STEAM, or Fab, or MakerEd…)

All of these terms in one way or another come down to the big idea of students learning core academic content (any subject, any grade level) through an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project in which they make an artifact and teachers most likely use some sort of non-traditional pedagogy.

There’s a lot of edubabble in there, but this is the best way I can describe what it is that I do as a STEM/STEAM/PBL/FAB/MakerEd teacher. And I definitely am all of those things (although I started out as an algebra teacher in a flipped classroom).

STEM/STEAM/PBL/Fab/MakerEd is just kids learning while doing cool project. Some are big, some are small, some involve big machines and technology, while others just use a pencil and paper. There is no one perfect definition or comparison of all of these terms. But I like to think if it’s done right, kids are learning more genuinely, having more fun, and not only mastering core content, but also hitting soft skills as well.

The only thing that all of these should have in common (and that’s a big should, it doesn’t always happen and that’s okay too!) is some form of the engineering design process. We want our students to be thoughtful and reflective of what they learning and making. The eight step process shown in the poster to the left is a great, kid friendly version of the Design Process. (if you’re interested in getting this poster for your classroom, please reach out to Sarah Wallace).

This chart is from PBLworks

Project Based Learning is at the heart of Maker / Fab Projects. Sure, you can do a Fab project that isn’t a PBL, like just designing and printing a model of a animal cell for example, but that would be like studying musical notes on paper and never hearing the song played on an instrument. Not all PBLs have a Maker/Fab component, but most do. Creating an physical artifact of learning is a wonderful way for students to demonstrate their mastery of a topic and core content. Doing so with a Maker/Fab/Engineering Design approach can deepen the students’ learning and overall experience with the project.

When folks are talking about PBL, we often hear ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’ thrown around interchangeably. But these two terms are different and result in very different types of projects. A monodisciplinary project is any project a teacher does within their own discipline, creating a model of the layers of the Earth for example out of foam, or even 3D printing it for example.

A multidisciplinary version of this project may have the Science teacher creating models of the Earth while the Social Studies teacher talks about the history of map making and how who makes the maps can result in inequitable, maps full of falsehoods. These projects are related but are still separate. An interdisciplinary approach to this project may have the Science and Math teachers working together where the Math teacher is having students do the scale factor and fraction part of the project while the Science teacher works on the models of the Earth. They are working together and students are experiencing how both disciplines can be useful to complete the project.

A transdisciplinary project exists without disciplines in mind and are often taught by one or two teachers (their subject matter can be anything). The project may be for students to create a model of the Earth. The teacher(s) could cover some or all of the possible topics listed in the Project Web to the right.

For example, if the two instructors were Math and ELA teachers maybe the project may focus on researching the Flat Earth Debate and argumentative writing and the Four Color Theorem and Scale Factor. But the teachers would also touch on all of the other topics. We, as educators, need to be okay with discussing ideas with our students that we are not experts in. There are so many resources available online for teachers to learn just a little bit about the other topics in the web to make the project feel bigger than a Math and/or ELA project and connected to the world.

Transdisciplinary Projects allow students to complete a task and learn along the way. These projects should be driven by teacher or student passion and interest. For example a Science teacher may lead a Calligraphy project. Students would learn the history of language, the evolution of different alphabets, and the chemistry of how ink is made while learning calligraphy, writing a poem and making a piece of art to show both.

Some projects may last one day, one week, or even a full quarter. Each project may be totally different from the next. Schools can think about introducing projects one day a week, or for a few days at the beginning or end of a quarter as a way to help teachers get excited about and ease into a new way of teaching and assessing learning.

The CMSD Fab Lab has done hundreds of projects with students over the past decade and works with dozens of teachers each year to bring them to the STEM/STEAM/PBL/FAB/MakerEd dark side of teaching. Explore the resources on this site and please register for our newsletter or reach out the CMSD FabLab manager, Sarah Prendergast Wallace to see how you can get more involved and get your students making.