Powered By STEAM, Project Prepares Younger Generations for New Thinking

By Timothy Linn, Public Relations Specialist, Rockhurst University

Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, leads an activity during the STEAM camp for girls at Gould Evans STEAM Studio in Kansas City, MO (Photo by Rockhurst University)


Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, leads an activity during the STEAM camp for girls at Gould Evans STEAM Studio in Kansas City, MO (Photo by Rockhurst University)

The same subjects that have been taught in schools for generations — reading, writing and arithmetic — are still the building blocks of most young students’ educations.

But as technology and innovation continue to shape the world, educators have stressed the importance of the STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as they prepare students for future success.

Enter the STEAM Studio, a partnership between Rockhurst University’s education department and Kansas City-based architecture firm Gould Evans. Launched in September 2014, the studio, based in a loft in Gould Evans’ Kansas City, MO office, serves as the home for a host of innovative programming for K-12 students centered on the principles of STEAM, which adds “art” and design thinking principles to the STEM curriculum to provide students with an innovative edge.

Mandi Sonnenberg, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, said the idea for the studio grew from conversations she had with Gould Evans as part of a committee helping design the classrooms in the University’s new academic building, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Hall, as well as a capstone group she was advising from the University’s Helzberg School of Management that was researching the “next century classroom.”

She says, “That evolved into this concept of a space where we could actually try out some of these ideas and techniques. Gould Evans was a great partner, offering us the use of their loft space, the furniture and the educational resources where we could launch the studio.”

From the beginning, Sonnenberg said the project has also been a service learning opportunity for Rockhurst University education students, as well as a way to apply less-than-traditional approaches to teaching.

“The Rockhurst students have stepped up to volunteer,” she says. “They really run the STEAM Studio — they want to be there and they want to help with the students. It’s great for them from a service perspective, but it also gives them some freedom to put into practice what they’re learning about new ways to instruct.”

On a given week, the STEAM Studio is part laboratory, part playhouse and a pinch of classroom. Activities have had students designing custom 3-D-printed prosthetic hands for the organization, Enabling the Future; augmenting the coding for mobile applications; and learning the science behind fashion.

Research shows that women are less likely to pursue STEAM-related paths than their male counterparts; another special STEAM Studio program is specifically tailored for young girls, to encourage their exploration of STEAM programs.

Sonnenberg says that over the course of its first year, well over 500 primary- and secondary-age students have attended at least one of STEAM Studio’s programs. That includes students with a range of ability levels from area parochial, public and charter schools, as well as homeless shelters.

The need to bolster STEAM-related education is clear — according to the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), only 44 percent of 2013 U.S. high school students were ready for college-level courses in mathematics, and only 36 percent were considered ready for college-level science courses. 

Even if they enter college prepared for the courses, many students abandon their STEM degree paths — 38 percent of those students who enter college pursuing a STEM-related degree finish with a non-STEM degree.

At the same time, research shows that STEAM-related expertise is increasingly in demand from employers. According to the NMSI, job opportunities in computer programming alone, a field that requires the high-level thinking and mathematics skills from STEAM-based education, were expected to grow by 45 percent between 2008 and 2018.

Sonnenberg says that preparing today’s students for those careers starts with presenting the curriculum in a way that appeals to them. The hands-on nature of STEAM Studio offers a more approachable way to learn the concepts of empirical learning and critical thinking and how those concepts can be applied across the STEAM disciplines.

“It boils down to real-world application,” she says. “That’s where the design thinking comes in. In all of the STEAM Studio’s activities, we ask the students to take their projects through the brainstorming, troubleshooting, and prototyping stages before they produce a final product. Those are skills that are crucial in any number of different careers.”

The response to the STEAM Studio has been amazing, Sonnenberg says, and has opened up new partnerships and opportunities for growth. Soon, Rockhurst High School students will begin working with STEAM Studio students in a new robotics curriculum and research initiative. The project also recently raised enough funds to purchase its own bus to make transportation to and from the studio more accessible and affordable. As Rockhurst University students and others continue to step forward and lead the project, Sonnenberg is confident in STEAM Studio’s future in preparing the innovative leaders of tomorrow.