10 Ways Seattle Schools are Engaging Students in STEAM

At Ozobot, we love discovering new ways for teachers to engage students in STEAM subjects. Educators come up with seemingly endless ideas to make the material they teach in science, technology, and math classes memorable and engaging.

In particular, the educators in Seattle Public Schools, King County, and the surrounding areas do an exceptional job of engaging students in STEAM concepts. Learning has become a community effort, with local businesses, professional groups, and alumni stepping in to involve students in learning opportunities. 

Here are 10 inspiring teachers, clubs, and groups making a difference in Seattle schools when it comes to engaging students in STEAM subjects.

1. Issaquah Students Compete in Top Robotics Competitions

Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region have developed a reputation as a hotbed for competitive robotics. In 2019, GeekWire profiled the Issaquah Robotics Society, formed by students at Issaquah High School. Student and co-president Aedan Henry explained why robotics has become one of the most popular clubs at his school — boasting more than 60 members. 

“Robotics sucks you in,” Henry writes. “It sparks new ideas that become all-encompassing. We talk about it constantly. Robotics dominates thoughts and conversations because it’s more interesting and more inspiring than much of traditional high school.” 

Henry went on to say that he feels independent and professional in his ability to work with others to create robots that solve problems and challenges. 

2. Amazon and FIRST Provide Resources to Elementary Schools

Administrators at Seattle Public Schools and other community leaders want to inspire elementary students to discover and pursue an interest in robotics. Through a partnership with Amazon and FIRST Washington (which provides mentor-based science and technology programs), young students learn about robots and how to build them.

“We tell them, and it’s true, that they are going to be our future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians,” Brenda Ball Cuthbertson, principal at John Muir Elementary, said about the program. “They are going to be the ones that are going to create the things that we can’t even imagine, and they are getting started on that today.”

By engaging students with robotics at a young age, educators hope to instill a passion that will continue to grow in middle and high school, rather than have students fear complex math and technology.

3. Local Teachers Work to Develop Their Own Curricula

Seattle Public Schools set the bar for students in the surrounding areas and throughout Washington, and some teachers in neighboring districts are getting creative with the resources they have. 

Opstad Elementary School coding teacher Chris Harting was recently honored by Symetra and the Seattle Seahawks as a “Hero in the Classroom.” He was nominated by a parent for the award because of the fun and engaging way he brings coding to the classroom. 

Even though Opstad has only had a coding program for a few years, Harting has built a strong curriculum that makes students excited about the material. Plus, the nominating parent says, Harting always works to make his kids laugh and enjoy their lessons.

4. Redfin Employees Volunteer During Hour of Code

Students in Seattle can benefit from the large technology sector that has formed over the past few decades. Many STEAM professionals have shown their willingness to share their knowledge and stories with local students. 

For example, in 2018, groups of Redfin engineers visited Seattle area middle schools that were participating in the Hour of Code. They talked about their careers and the paths they took to reach them. The engineers also led “unplugged” activities that honed student coding skills but didn’t require technology. 

“I really liked the feeling of having inspired some children in getting more interested in computer science,” said Alvin Tran, a senior software developer at Redfin. He also appreciated the team bonding that came with hanging out with his peers and coworkers to help the kids.  

5. High School Students Lobby for Computer Science Resources

While teachers and parents work to provide STEAM resources, some of the area’s students are starting to speak up and advocate for themselves. In an article for the Seattle Times, Hallie Chen, an Issaquah high School student and part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program, lobbied in favor of teaching computer science to more students in the area. 

Chen shared her struggles to understand computer science processes. “Instead of plugging numbers into an equation Isaac Newton discovered 300 years ago, computer science makes me the Newton: I have to think actively and work through the process, each and every time,” she wrote. “Though it felt tedious at first, the biggest reward was computational thinking, or the process of breaking down problems into segments to first solve individually, one at a time.” 

Even if Chen doesn’t enter a programming career, that ability to solve complex problems and strategically approach challenges will benefit her and prepare her for any future endeavor.

6. College Mentors Help Engage Young Students

College students in Seattle and Puget Sound understand the value of computer science and are eager to pass on their knowledge to younger students. 

For example, when Sofia Schwartz, was a student at the University of Puget Sound, she led the Beta Coders along with a few of her peers. This was a club dedicated to reaching younger students and making programming seem accessible, therefore promoting diversity in the field. The Beta Coders mentored students at Lincoln High School in Tacoma and helped students in computer science classes up to three times a week. 

“I was never exposed to computer science until the end of my freshman year of college,” said Schwartz, now a software engineer at Accenture. “I wanted to be able to expose people [to it] at a younger level.”

7. Educators Connect STEAM Concepts to Real-World Issues

STEAM education works to build connections with the material that will stick with students, and you can see how Seattle Public Schools are committed to this concept through their new math proposal. If the plan is approved, teachers will change how they teach math to present concepts through a social justice lens. 

“I can learn about the radius of a circle and do typical classroom activities where I’m finding the circumference of a jar,” explains educator and attorney Colin Seale, founder of professional development provider ThinkLaw. “Or, my teachers can use the concept of a radius to have me think about my proximity to a grocery store where healthy food options are available to help me understand the concept of food deserts.” 

This process taps into the students’ natural curiosity about the world and sense of justice in a way that makes the lessons stick. It can also validate their own very real problems outside of the classroom. 

8. NOVA Students Apply Civics Knowledge to Climate Protests

As students tie their STEAM lessons to practical, real-world experiences, many are stepping up to fight for change. In September 2019, more than 2,000 people protested the climate crisis at the Washington statehouse, many of whom were students who left school that day as a form of protest. While most schools issued unexcused absences to these students, one school in Olympia supported it.

Administrators at NOVA Middle School were impressed when more than 85 percent of the student body signed a letter supporting the climate strike and calling for an early release day. They agreed to let the students participate with the supervision of parent and teacher chaperones. Teachers used the events happening in their backyard to have a broader, STEAM-focused discussion on climate change while allowing students to follow their passions and learn from the leaders around them.   

9. The GEMS Club Engages Girls in STEAM Concepts

Another way community leaders are engaging students in STEM concepts is with the GEMS program by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) of Seattle. GEMS stands for Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science. It is a free club available to 7th and 8th-grade students that meets twice per month at two different locations in the area (South Shore PK-8 in South Seattle and Fred Hutch in South Lake Union). 

There is a different theme each month that covers a different STEAM topic. Over this school year, participants will get to participate in fun projects related to DNA, astrophysics, forensic science, oceanography, and much more. 

10. King County Libraries Support Students and Teachers

Alongside Seattle schools, the King County Library System has focused closely on providing free or affordable STEAM resources for local students. In particular, the Bellevue Library is home to the ideaX Makerspace which hosts a variety of workshops and events throughout the year. Teachers and residents can also reserve makerspace equipment to work on specific projects or guide students through the learning process. 

KCLS received recognition for their STEAM efforts from Boeing, which awarded the system $80,000 in a grant to expand their technology programs to low-income and underserved families. The ideaX programs launched by the library reached more than 12,000 students in 2018.     

Each of the teachers and groups mentioned in this list engage students in different ways. Some teachers make learning fun so students will keep wanting to know more. Other educators tie lesson plans to issues outside of school, to add context for why the lesson is meaningful. All of these lessons give students future-ready skills and entice them to continue exploring STEAM concepts long after they leave the classroom. 

Images by: skeeze, Ian Allenden/©, Katarzyna Białasiewicz/©, hollydornak

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