MONTREAL, JANUARY 27, 2017- About a year ago, the English Montreal School Board’s Director of Education and Technology Services (ETS) Sandra Furfaro proposed that General Vanier Elementary School in St. Léonard try out a new hands-on educational initiative as a pilot project that would help bring it into the 21st century.
The program in question was called “STEAM,” which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. STEAM is a multi-disciplinary initiative that promotes creativity and high levels of student engagement, as they perform a series of group projects that not only involve all the five school subject domains, but also makes them more relevant, creative, discovery-based and interesting for students.
“When I first heard about STEAM, I wanted to make sure that we moved quickly so that everyone in the school would say yes to it,” said Joseph Schembri, the Principal of General Vanier School. “I presented the idea to the staff council, who in turn presented it to the entire staff, and they approved it unanimously. From there we proposed it to the school’s governing board, who also unanimously approved to initiate the STEAM program here.”
This past September the STEAM pilot project was launched at two EMSB elementary schools for the 2016-2017 school year: General Vanier and Pierre Elliott Trudeau School in Rosemount.
Mr. Schembri is proud of the fact that STEAM has impacted General Vanier in such a short period of time. This was quite evident as he showed how STEAM projects are carried out in practically every classroom, with every grade, as well as the school’s Makerspace. The latter refers to a converted unused classroom which provides the tools and supplies that are more accessible to the students for their use towards accomplishing the exercise or project in question. It helps develop an atmosphere where innovative creativity and learning can take place.
During a recent school day, a STEAM challenge project was taking place in the Makerspace. EMSB Arts Consultant Nicolas Doyon was leading the session, where the Grade 3 students teamed up and were given 30 minutes to plan and construct a network of bridges – using recycled material - along a 75 centimetre distance between the Makerspace’s four whiteboard tables, so that a small Styrofoam ball could roll from one bridge to another. It was amazing to witness the high levels of enthusiasm and teamwork the students exhibited during this challenge, from drawing up plans on the surface of their whiteboard tables, to the construction of the bridges, to carrying out the actual challenge, to offering feedback and reflections when the exercise was finished.
“STEAM has established a new way of thinking for the students at General Vanier, where technology is taking over,” said Bob Reda, chairman of General Vanier’s Governing Board, and whose daughter is a Grade 4 student there. “As a result, the kids benefit from learning and they are loving every minute of it. It really gives them an advantage at such an early age. The program really opens up their minds, especially when it comes to the creative and building process. They see new things – such as being exposed to computers more often -- and are intrigued by them. It’s great to see the looks on their faces every time they enter the maker space, because they are so anxious to participate in that day’s STEAM exercise.”
Mr. Reda also noted that in a pamphlet of students’ comments about the school – which was distributed to parents of prospective students during a recent open house event – seven of the nine student comments that were featured in the pamphlet specifically stated that they enjoyed participating in STEAM; for example, a Grade 3 student named Eva wrote “When I think of General Vanier I think of STEAM. We are a STEAM school this year. We have a new room called the Makerspace. We make cool stuff in there.”
Maria Drudi, a Cycle 1 teacher at General Vanier, is a strong supporter of STEAM, because she believes it allows students to become critical thinkers, and teaches them to effectively work together in a team setting, which starts at the Grade 2 level.
“What STEAM does is that it gives students the opportunity to challenge themselves,” she said. “They can’t wait to go to the maker space, and are always excited about what they are about to do there. And they are so willing to work and plan things together. They show a lot of passion when they do a STEAM project, especially when it involves working with computers. It’s quite amazing.”
When Ms. Drudi asked her Grade 2 class if they liked STEAM, every one of them gave a “thumbs-up” sign of approval. And when she asked them what they liked the most about STEAM, here are some of their answers:
-“I liked when we built a maze, and how fast it took us to make it.” – Ava
-“I like working with the 3-D printer, because we got to make a lot of things with it.” – Emma
-“Because of what we learned with STEAM, I would like to be an engineer someday.” – Sammy
Mr. Schembri is confident that once the STEAM trial period concludes next spring, and following an evaluation by the school, that it will continue afterwards. He is also hopeful that the success of STEAM so far at General Vanier will translate to an increase in enrolment.