STEAM by Design Course Nurtures Conversations and Innovation
STEAM by design

By Ben Michelman, Eighth Grade Language Arts Teacher and Middle School Community Engagement Coordinator

Since starting his eighth-grade elective course, STEAM by Design, in 2017, Karl Schaefer has presented his students with opportunities to explore cutting-edge technology in innovative ways. More importantly, though, he’s taught important life lessons. He rearranged the lab so that it is a collaborative space. Under the 3D printers is a box titled “Almost Worked. Failing Forward!” Instead of hiding failures, he elevates them as a necessity. The Kevin Brookhouser quote, “Failure is an option. Failure to deliver is not.” is pasted in huge letters on the wall.

Despite the success of the STEAM by Design class, Schaefer felt there was a certain “authenticity” missing. He wanted his students to “make something real for someone.” He started last year by introducing his students to the E-NABLE hand project, an organization that creates “assistive hand devices for those in need.” His students 3D-printed and assembled artificial hands. This was successful, but he wanted his students to meet people face-to-face and truly connect.

Inspired by a project by the Brookwood School, Schaefer’s class, beginning in January, collaborated with Durham Regent, a local senior living and retirement community. He paired students with residents at Regent and then arranged three meetings over the course of three months. Alden May, a STEAM by Design student, remembers his initial conversation with his Regent partner, “Ms. Betts.” He says, “at first I wasn’t quite sure what I could do for her. She was happy and liked the social aspect of the senior home. Eventually, she talked about her recent stroke and how she couldn’t move her left arm. She said she now only plays dominoes, which only requires one hand.” Alden went back to the STEAM by Design lab and designed a card holder using Tinkercad. He remembers his first prototype being “tiny and only holding three cards.” He presented his second, larger prototype to a delighted Ms. Betts, who wanted to keep it. When Alden insisted that he wanted to make a cleaner final product, which he would deliver at his next meeting, Ms. Betts said, “alright, well if you’re going to make another one, can you make it Duke blue?” On the third visit, Ms. Betts and Alden happily chatted over that Duke-blue card holder as they played a rip-roaring game of Crazy 8s! Later, Angie Holeman, the community engagement coordinator at Durham Regent, would tell Mr. Schaefer that a handful of other residents would like a card holder, as well.

Other students made similar connections. MacKenna Morris designed a 3D calendar so that her partner, Mary Ann, wouldn’t have to rely on her daughter to remind her of appointments. Chris Morris designed a cane holder so that his partner, Ruth, wouldn’t forget her cane anymore as she left her room to go for her daily walk. On the way back from delivering the cane holder, Chris said, “I didn’t realize something so small could bring so much joy.”

As for Schaefer, he’s pleased with the partnership. He’s most happy that the kids were able to listen, ask follow-up questions and be vulnerable with their partners. These are qualities that the class practiced leading up to the initial meetings. Mr. Schaefer practices what he preaches: by trying something new and unpredictable, he modeled this vulnerability for his students.