Wednesday, April 1, 2015

STEAM Ahead NH inspires learning and new ideas

It started with an English class book assignment. Freshmen students enrolled in the STEAM Ahead NH program at West High School were reading “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of a teenager’s life on an Indian reservation. Poverty and daily struggles are major themes in the book. With that in mind, STEAM engineering teacher Dan Colburn had an idea for his own assignment.

“All of the STEAM teachers collaborate often, and we try to come up with projects that link disciplines together,” said Colburn. “This project gives the students a look into life in other parts of the country and prompts them to think about how they might be able to create something that would help people.”

Colburn asked his engineering students, “If there were one technological advance you could bring to a reservation to make life better, what would it be?” 

Their knowledge from the book and additional research on Native American reservations around the country sparked ideas which included a trap for food, hydroelectric power, irrigation systems, water filtration, air conditioning, and medical facilities.

For a final presentation, the students invited Governor Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Virginia Barry, Mayor Ted Gatsas and Paul Mailhot from STEAM Ahead NH business partner Dyn to hear about their design concepts and the real world problems they could solve. Five teams of students demonstrated how their inventions could turn dirty water into clean drinking water, heat or cool a small home, and water gardens.

Even when the mechanics of a device didn't go quite as expected, there was an understanding that problems are all part of a valuable learning process.

“In any field, in any project, there are times that some things don’t work well the first time,” Governor Hassan told the students. “You have to figure out what worked and what can be fixed. Solving the problem is as important as anything else you will learn.”

That is precisely the goal behind the STEAM Ahead NH curriculum. Empowering students to explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math in more meaningful ways will better prepare them for higher education and careers in those fields.

“West High School is the envy of so many schools in the state for having these opportunities,” said Dr. Barry.   

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