By Benjamin Mann, Head of School

This week, Philip H. Knight, the co-founder and chairman of Nike, announced a $400 million to Stanford University to bring graduate students from around the world together to solve intractable problems. At Schechter Manhattan, we are using a similar, albeit smaller gift, to begin training our students to start thinking in the same way.

When the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a coalition of businesspeople, educators, and policymakers, issued guidance stating that schools need to “focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future,” we took the directive seriously. While our education model was built on the belief that people learn best when they engage directly with phenomenon in the world, we decided to go one step further by embracing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) teaching and learning.

STEAM learning starts when students identify real world problems and challenges and then integrate the knowledge and skills from a mix of disciplines to design and implement solutions. With the support of a generous $1 million donation from Schechter Manhattan grandparents, Eileen and Jerry Lieberman, our school is weaving STEAM into every aspect of our curriculum.

Now in the first year, the Lieberman Family STEAM Center is reshaping our teaching model by incorporating the design process into learning activities. For example, for many years seventh grade science class included an assignment to design Rube Goldberg machines – machines that use a number of simple devices to complete a task. With STEAM in the mix, we are bringing an engineering lens to the project, increasing students’ planning and design time, asking them to assess their sketches and drafts for functionality issues, and assigning budgets so that students can manage the costs associated with their materials and building. Design challenges of this sort nurture the sort of creative thinking and problem solving practice that we have seen are needed for success in the 21st century.

We are also expanding co-curricular opportunities for students to design and build. Our second and third grade students visited the maker space workshop at the New York Hall of Science, to tinker, design, and create together. Third, fourth, and fifth grade students are participating in STEAM clubs such as computer coding and creating light art using copper tape, batteries, and lights. Middle school students are preparing a presentation to contribute to the MakerXpo, a fair-like event that will contain booths and challenges that combine technology and hands-on learning. And we are planning our second annual STEAMfest, a school wide program of students working together to design and build. We see that STEAM activities are both hands-on and minds-on, fun and challenging in ways that are deeply engaging.

All of this work is in the service of a vision of teaching and learning that will be different from what we have done before. We expect to make incremental changes each year so that our students will have ever more opportunities to think critically, connect, create, communicate, and collaborate. We aspire for them to identify their own guiding questions and real life problems so that they become deeply engaged in their own learning. We are confident that they will develop the 21st century thinking skills to design solutions to the challenges they will face in the years ahead.