Innovation Literacy and the STEM Monster


by Christa Flores -

Ask…. and ye shall answer your own questions

“I hope to apply a strong focus on place-based making and science while here in Atlanta...I also noticed that this year's research panel was very program and project focused, or more practical in nature. This gives me hope that higher education is stepping up to the plate to support and study best practice around making in community programs in ways it has not in the past.”

The above is a reflection from FabLearn 2016 from a prompt given to the FabLearn fellows by our mentor Sylvia Martinez. How would I apply FabLearn lessons to my new role as a K-8 outreach manager at Georgia Tech within the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC)? CEISMC is a self-contained K-12 STEM education research and design hub that has been around for twenty years. Lately, CEISMC has caught the MakerEd bug and I was hired to bring my experience to their partner K-12 schools wishing to start maker programs or makerspaces. I no longer have a makerspace of my own. I am answering my own call to arms post Fablearn. I have shifted from being a teacher/researcher or makerspace coordinator to a curriculum and learning space co-designer, working with multiple educators in multiple disciplines, at multiple public schools, one in an “up and coming” or gentrified neighborhood, and one within an area of concentrated poverty and segregation. This blog is focused on the latter school.

The school for inventors

Named after black entrepreneur Michael R. Hollis and founder of Atlanta Air, Hollis Innovation Academy is a Title I public school. It opened its doors to its PreK-5th grade students this past August, 2016. Hollis Innovation Academy was the product of a process called “Turnaround”, the exercise of closing failing public schools and sending their displaced users to a new building, with a new name, leaving behind any and all conglomerated failing track records. Turnaround offers a fresh start to envision a school’s mission and often entails new leadership. Hollis has that leadership with Doctor Diamond Jack, former science teacher and a firm believer that Hollis is poised to be a model for what quality STEM education can be in a Title I school.

Hollis is located deep in the westside of Atlanta, a neighborhood where many of its houses are boarded up or missing windows all together. The walkable resources available to residents include liquor and discount stores. Despite Hollis’ proximity to many universities and midtown, you can purchase a home on the westside for as low as $30,000. Arguably, the westside neighborhood where Hollis children walk to school each day, is a place that would benefit from empowerment and hope, not development and gentrification.

How might focusing on innovation literacy at this local public elementary school fulfill its leadership and grant funders’ vision of STEM education in an underserved area? To begin with, Hollis has three dedicated STEM teachers with their own classrooms (future makerspaces) and students (K-5th) meet for 90 minutes a week in STEM class. Add to this equation, Hollis’ partnership with CEISMC to design three makerspaces in hopes of bringing innovation to life for these elementary school children. Currently, Hollis is a very traditional, teacher led classroom environment focused on discipline (for safety sake) that makes my progressive teacher a little uncomfortable, but I am patient and hopeful that the maker mindset will flourish in this new school.

A LEVEL 4 problem

In short order working at CEISMC connected me to Atlanta’s local Maker Movement network such as Lew Lefton of Georgia Tech’s math department, founder of the Decatur Makers  a community makerspace and organizer of Atlanta’s Maker Faire. I met the impressive STEAM program director Courtney Bryant of Drew Charter School and the co-creator of the TinkerYard, a playground designed by kids for kids. I also met the team of entrepreneurial educators behind STEAM Truck, Atlanta’s first not for profit mobile makerlab, while at a design thinking workshop facilitated by the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation.

Despite these positive experiences, I had been losing sleep at night, worried that I wasn’t connecting to the three STEM teachers I was assigned to work with, or the students at Hollis. My role as an outreach manager seemed ill defined, flaccid, too open for interpretation, AKA prone to failure. Ironically, I had been placed in the same position I try to stick young learners, in the realm of the unknown, so they are emotionally engaged and encouraged to foster resilience when problem solving. Some of my frustration was coming from news I received soon after returning from FabLearn. I assumed that my makerspace planning and PBL lesson co-designing would be derailed for months due to a district wide edict to promote STEM.

The STEM MONSTER rears its head

When I arrived on the Hollis scene it was already mid October, months into the school year. Lesson planning had been done early and more importantly a new edict came down from the district saying that all K-5th grade students must participate in a Science and Engineering Fair in December. This kind of artificial and obsolete form of learning seemed like a backwards way to introduce a Kindergartener to the amazing worlds of science, engineering, math and technology, but then a friend shared her experience with an elementary science fair.  “It’s the only time I got to do science, I loved the science fair as a kid!”  My friend reminded me that there is room in the world for science and engineering fairs, but we should still ask what other modes of sharing work in invention and inquiry we can expose learners to, competitive and collaborative, on a frequent and authentic basis.

Back to the Hollis Science Fair...because this edict felt like a new and unknown responsibility, the STEM teachers I am meant to co-design with, took understandable measures to help secure their students’ success, such as choosing topics for them to study and pre-ordering all supplies for the predetermined experiments. Up front, it seemed as though there was no student voice built into the enterprise. Because the fair is in a few weeks, every STEM class block of time would be devoted to the science fair projects. My attention shifted from makerspace design to asking how might we instill the maker mindset in adults, in order to protect the spirit of a learner-centered space such as a makerspace? In other words, how was I going to fight the STEM monster (approaching STEM as a drill and kill approach) and design more student voice into STEM classes?

Go slowly, but GO!

Part of my CEISMC role is to have deep partnerships with our public schools. I spend three days a week at Hollis where I have been working with 3rd graders in Ms. Battle’s STEM class on Friday mornings. This particular section of 3rd graders was assigned to create squishy circuit frogs as part of a larger frog study for their science and engineering fair project. While waiting for supplies for the science fair projects to arrive we introduced students to electricity in three lessons (4.5 hrs). The remainder of this blog is an account of these lessons and how we slowly introduced the idea of a makerspace and self-direction into one STEM class.

In our first lesson students were given three materials; one alligator clip, one C battery, and one small flashlight bulb. The prompt? Get the lightbulb to light. Perseverance is one of the Habits of Hollis and so we used that word a lot in the first 15 minutes when no one had figured out how to light the bulb. “I give up,” said one girl. Then her partner tosses her chin into her palm and followed suit saying, “This is too hard.” I shared with the frustrated students that it sometimes takes 5th graders an hour to figure the same problem out. I assured them they were tackling a real problem. The discouraged team turned out to be the first to find the solution, demonstrating beautifully for their peers what perseverance looks and feels like.

In the second lesson students rotated through stations, some made playdough for squishy circuits with Ms. Battle. Some used computers to review some digital media on frogs Ms. Battle had curated for them, some were on a rug building with LEGOS and some explored making series, parallel and short circuits with me. It was great having two adults in the room, one to facilitate the very messy and measurement sensitive math lessons of making dough, and one to probe students and notice when they discovered a science concept like a short circuit, or open and closed circuit while playing/exploring. These days were fun and kids seemed to really engage with the material, but they were 100% teacher directed.  

The above signs were the idea of the creator, I only asked for the words, they added images and their own definitions.

The third lesson came spontaneously as I texted Ms. Battle on a Thursday night to see what she had planned for our Friday 3rd grade STEM class at 8:30am. I was in the ACE hardware parking lot when I thought of Ms. Battle. When supplies for the fair had still not arrived on time, we seized the opportunity to design a follow up lesson to the past two sessions on exploring electronics. It was an opportunity to have the 3rd graders start using real tools and making something real, like circuit blocks (inspired by Lighthouse Community Charter School and the Tinkering Studio). Before students arrived, we set up the classroom as a makeshift makerspace. We pulled the tables and chairs out of rows facing the teacher focused front of the room. This made an open square of work stations with a class reflection rug in the middle of the space to sit together at and review our experience together. We had a wood measuring station, a wood cutting station, a sanding station, an electric component assembling/testing/experimenting station, and a station where artists could work on making signs for our stations.

Despite the array of components to use, most students chose the switch, next class we discover why that might hinder the making of a working circuit when used together in a system.


Before getting to work we started off the lesson with a talk about what a makerspace is, what a maker is, tool safety and mindfulness. Then we got to work. For most, if not all the children, it was their first experience with woodworking. Cutting a 2x1 piece of pine was clearly very gratifying for some of these makers. While sawing one young lady even declared “This is what I want to do when I grow up.” I wasn't sure if she was referring to woodworking or what, but I was happy to have exposed her to a new passion. During this lesson Ms. Battle and I noticed peer to peer mentoring, tool skill acquisition, moments of self-identity, applied mathematical literacy, and total engagement. The number of behavioral issues decreased significantly and self-discipline reigned. I thank the magic of a makerspace for the change.

At the completion of a successful cut, this young man shares his gratification in the form of a huge smile.

Without instructions in the assembly area, students innovated on working circuits, some worked some failed.

If STEM is a monster, can it be a cuddly one?

In the third lesson student choice was built into the option to do art or the digital media station and at that assembly station as learners decided what electronic component they attached to their block. It was a small window into their individuality, but it is a window with a great view.

In deference to frustrated art teachers and non STEM educators who feel the oppressive weight of STEM initiatives that consume grant funding and champion obsolete career readiness arguments - I have a different view of the STEM monster. I am very grateful that my STEM monster allows me to be in a school that has three talented teachers dedicated to exposing the Hollis students to science, technology, engineering and math through invention AND inquiry. I even hope to embrace the constraints of the science and engineering fair to promote more student voice and choice. I might be collaborating with a STEM monster, but I am a firm believer that Maker Education has the ability to rebrand old ideas about college and career readiness as a vehicle for innovation literacy in younger and younger innovators.