Education conference participants focus on moving full STEAM ahead

PEO’s 2018 Education Conference, which took place on May 25 and 26, offered attendees access to expert science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) speakers and an opportunity to engage in fun activities and mingle with like-minded individuals. This year’s theme, “Full STEAM ahead: Developing bright minds in science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” explored the current state of STEAM education, how it fits into the school curriculum now and how it might in the future. The conference opened with welcome remarks from Manoj Shukla, EIT, and Sangeeta Shakrawar, EIT, masters of ceremonies for the evening. After an overview of goals from Education Conference Planning Committee Chair and incoming Education Committee Chair Paymon Sani, P.Eng., who told delegates technology is moving quickly and the best place to start catching up with it is with young minds, it was onto the presentations and passionate guest speakers.

PEO Councillor Iretomiwa Olukiyesi, P.Eng., who is also Council liaison to the Education Committee, kicked things off with a review of the structure of PEO Council, support for the Education Committee and its programs and how PEO is reaching out to young minds in the community. She explored promoting the value of a licence among students and aligning the Education Committee work plan with PEO’s strategic plan.

Philip Sullivan, PhD, P.Eng., professor emeritus, Institute for Aerospace Studies, University of Toronto, gave a spirited talk on mathematics teaching in Ontario schools. Sullivan discussed the political landscape of mathematics teaching in grades 1 to 8, with an emphasis on ways to improve curriculum structure, teacher training and the use of problem-based learning versus direct instruction. Attendees then participated in an interactive musical icebreaker activity to encourage the use of their full STEAM skillset in imagination and design. Groups were asked to build musical instruments that could play a single note and ultimately performed as an ensemble to the amusement of all.

Day two of the conference featured speakers such as Jennifer Arp, Toronto District School Board trustee and vice chair, who shared her experience growing up as a self-described “STEAM-curious” child and a touching anecdote about how the STEAM door had been closed to her in the form of a discouraging word from the teacher of her first chemistry class, who told her, “All dancers take biology.” Arp pointed out how STEAM has a key role to play in equity work, outlined how STEAM is incorporated into classrooms and schools and talked about exciting programs within the Toronto District School Board, including how STEAM education can be fostered and supported through a rapidly changing education environment. Using a particularly “STEAM-fabulous” school, John Polanyi Collegiate Institute, as an example, Arp discussed the importance of educational partnerships and how STEAM can be embedded into all aspects of school life. Arp is optimistic there’s a better answer to how STEAM is incorporated into curriculum. She asked: “It’s not just about tests—how do we build community?” Her answer: engagement.

It was onto an inspiring speech from Dorothy Byers, program manager, The Learning Partnership, and chair, FIRST Robotics Canada. Like Arp, Byers had the STEAM door figuratively shut in her face by a discouraging science teacher. “Kids need doors opened for them, not closed,” she said, adding that she makes a point to tell young girls today, “If you see her, you can be her.” Byers outlined how FIRST Robotics Canada has grown to engage students from grades 1 to 12 through a full family of programs that begin with building and programming LEGO robots right through to industry standard, full-sized machines in high school. Byers shared the national and international impact of FIRST and described how the program brings STEAM concepts to life and discussed the essential roles mentors and volunteers play in bringing the program to fruition. She stressed the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion and explained how they breed confidence and create opportunities for learning.

Rebecca White, EIT, operations manager, Engineers of Tomorrow, Engineers Without Borders, schooled the room on the Engineer-in-Residence (EIR) program—the innovative, volunteer-based program dedicated to inspiring young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. White encouraged engineers to get involved with EIR, pointing out opportunities to encourage students to get involved with STEAM at an early age.

Chris Meyer, vice president, teaching and learning, Ontario Association of Physics Teachers, and a high school physics teacher, gave an impassioned talk on the future of high school physics education. Meyer spoke of the challenges that come with high school physics being a required course for admission to most university engineering programs. He asserted physics—historically, the least popular of the high school sciences, with women and visible minorities noticeably underrepresented—is the barrier to gender parity in STEAM. Meyer shared that physics instruction at both the secondary and post-secondary levels is undergoing a revolution, saying an emerging science of learning is reshaping both how and why we teach physics, and how this holds promise for opening career prospects in engineering and various STEM disciplines to more students. The goal of STEAM education, Meyer said, is to turn novices into experts and to help them learn what real-life scientists and engineers do. He stressed the importance of eliminating fads in education and sticking to what works: scientifically informed pedagogy.

Next up were York Region District School Board curriculum consultants Erin Keyzers and Chris Tucker, who spoke about STEM and the contemporary educational setting. Keyzers and Tucker described the elementary and secondary classroom context by exploring the science and technological education curricula and shared examples of specialized Ministry of Education programs, such as the Specialist High Skills Major program that offers natural connection points between industry and schools, and, they suggested, the perfect place for PEO to land. They also examined the Building the Workforce of Tomorrow report to support the collaboration between PEO and schools, led participants through the relevant ministry documents and explored potential connections to their own work. The team suggested chapter events involving, for example, design challenges and mentoring with FIRST Robotics as perfect opportunities to get students involved with STEAM and PEO. For one of the last activities of the day, and in the spirit of bringing STEAM into the classrooms, the room split into breakout sessions to offer conference delegates a forum to discuss the definition of STEAM and how it can be engaged at the primary, secondary and post-secondary education levels. Participants also had an opportunity to engage in engineering outreach demonstrations and activities, ranging from building using CAD, a robomaze activity and a seismic resistance structure contest.