Remaking STEM: Punahou Builds New Spaces for Hands-on, Applied Learning to Flourish
By Cynthia Wessendorf
When Sophia Georgopapadakos '15 decided to construct a moving cat for her Academy Engineering independent project and AP Art portfolio, she couldn't have anticipated the challenges ahead.
The project started on familiar ground, but quickly veered into new territory: the feline face originated as a clay model, which she used to make a plaster cast; the skin was constructed with silicone rubber and painted in oils; the bulging eyes were created in the glassblowing lab; the skeleton was made from 3D-printed, interlocking plastic parts using Solidworks 3D CAD (computer-aided design) software. Even while still in prototype, one could easily imagine programmed movements animating the creature's otherworldly head. Making use of both the art studios and robotics workshop, Georgopapadakos' animatronics creation is an arresting example of what students can do when they have access to tools, creative spaces and a fearless spirit for plunging into the unknown.
June Park '18 is part of a team designing a robot for the FIRST Tech Challenge competition.
"It was an exploratory process with lots of trial and error," she recounts. "I had glass eyes explode, pieces didn't fit together, the paint wouldn't dry on the skin. And there was a steep learning curve to figure out how to use Solidworks."
Long after the cat is brought home for safekeeping, the experience of constructing it, and the knowledge gained in the process, will persist. By blending disciplines and turning an idea into a tangible object, the cat creation is one of many manifestations of STEM learning at Punahou. Simply put, STEM means science, technology, engineering and math – core strengths that catapulted our nation to the world stage and sustained its dominance in the global economy. Today, it's a word that triggers anxiety.
Statistics are worrisome. The latest Program for International Student Assessment scores in math and science, for example, show American 15-year-olds trailing not only top performers like Singapore and Finland, but also Vietnam, Ireland and Poland.
While teachers and administrators across the country wrestle over how to improve STEM competencies, Punahou delves deeper into its own curriculum, looking for answers to key questions: How can STEM learning best be developed? How do you keep pace with competitive nations and schools focused expressly on STEM subjects?
As educators describe it, great STEM schools are collaborative, inquiry-based places where students learn by making, testing and problem-solving. Technology is seamlessly integrated into the experience. In Academy science classrooms, where student investigation is taking center stage and podium lectures are fading, STEM learning thrives.
U.S. News and World Report takes a numbers approach in its "Best High Schools for STEM" ranking of public and magnet schools. Their methodology is based on passing grades in college-level AP calculus, computer science, statistics, biology, chemistry, environmental science and physics – all offered at Punahou, with a majority of test-takers getting high marks.
"Our goal is to help students think and approach problems like engineers. That involves not just conceptualizing the problem, but also building the solution." – Aaron Dengler, Engineering Faculty and Robotics Team Coordinator
By these standard benchmarks, then, the School equips students to succeed in STEM subjects and builds classes around progressive pedagogy. But new initiatives are now underway to push the curriculum further. A STEAM model is emerging (the "A" stands for art), which intentionally connects a heightened focus on engineering with opportunities to make and create in the School's renowned art studios.
This STEAM framework of linking disciplines, innovating and engaging in hands-on learning dovetails with another campus development: the growing number of makerspaces.
Making Expands Learning
Molding clay, cutting wood, designing a robot's movable arm – "learning by doing" shapes not only the Punahou curriculum, but campus design as well. From the Academy glassblowing and ceramics studios to Dillingham Theatre's scene shop, spaces devoted to making things – called makeries or makerspaces – punctuate the campus. Charles C. Gates Jr. '39 helped advance this initiative in the sciences with gifts through the Gates Family Foundation toward the Gates Science Workshop (1999) in Mamiya Science Center and the Charles and June Gates Learning Center (2005) in Case Middle School. Packed with raw materials and equipment, these nontraditional spaces get kids out of the classroom and into creative zones, where they can tinker, construct and design. They give students a place "for building and creating tangible expressions of their learning," explains Academy Principal Kevin Conway.
"This is a 21st-century education initiative," says Conway. "You learn content, you learn process, but instead of always taking a test, your demonstration is actually creating something. It could be digital, an artistic display, a written sample or a machine-shopped product."
"Makery" might sound like a fancy way to say "shop," but Conway points out that the maker movement has spread beyond K – 12 and into colleges and communities across the country. Multi-use spaces outfitted for making – from coding to 3D scanning to "eggbot" printing – are cropping up in both small-town libraries and urban design workshops.
The School's 3D printer resides in the Charles and June Gates Learning Center and is accessible to all grade levels for production of student-generated projects.
Makerspaces not only serve DIY enthusiasts, they also give students a space for hands-on STEAM learning, creatively answering President Barack Obama's '79 "Educate to Innovate" challenge to "think about new ways to engage young people in science and engineering, to encourage them to create and build and invent – to be makers of things, not just consumers of things."
The future transformation of the School's libraries aligns with this makerspace focus. In addition to innovation hubs planned for the future K – 8 Learning Commons as part of the new facilities for grades 2 – 5, a reimagining of the Academy's Cooke Library is also underway to reflect the growing importance of applied research and design in a student's learning toolkit. Quiet areas for reading and writing are envisioned alongside makerspaces equipped with fabric, paper, digital equipment and other materials.
While the joy of making and creating cuts across disciplines and ages, one group especially benefits from this kind of hands-on learning: students interested in engineering, a field devoted to addressing real-world problems by turning ideas into machines, processes and structures.
A 21st-Century Machine Shop
The sound of hammering and welding once echoed through the hallways of nearly every high school. Machine shops defined hands-on learning for generations. But as shop classes were slowly phased out of high schools, this mainstay of technical education went with it.
At Punahou, the machine shop is making a comeback. A state-of-the-art, engineering-focused makery is currently being discussed for the Academy, thanks in part to a recent $1 million gift to the School from Ken Richardson '48, an aerospace pioneer and former president and chief operating officer of Hughes Aircraft Company.
"Right now engineering science majors only represent 4.5 percent of graduates from colleges in the U.S.," notes Richardson. "In Europe they're 15 percent and in China, 21 percent. Technology comes from trained people, and many of us old-timers are quite concerned about the position of the U.S. in the competitive world, especially as regards technology and innovation."
Richardson believes that stimulating STEM education is one way to increase the supply of trained and motivated technological innovators in the national and global market. "There are two components to STEM: one is inspiring kids, the other is teaching." His gift aims to jumpstart both at Punahou by enhancing the spaces that enable strong STEM learning to take place, while simultaneously supporting faculty in this area.
The new design and fabrication hub will foreground the often-neglected "E" in STEM curricula. In spirit and function, this future lab joins the robotics workshop, the emerging K – 8 and Academy Learning Commons, and existing art studios to offer a multidisciplinary array of spaces that blend STEAM learning and highlight their shared focus on creating.
Ryan Hirano '16, member of the Civil Engineering Club, cuts plastic tubing for the club's hydroponic prototype while fellow club member Jonah Yamato '17 looks on.
"We'll have the capacity to make just about anything a student visualizes," says Aaron Dengler, who teaches engineering electives in both the middle school and Academy, and brought robotics to Punahou more than a decade ago. Over the years, his workshop in the Charles and June Gates Learning Center has evolved into a small manufacturing center, including drill presses, lathes, mills and plasma cutters. These heavy fabrication tools, along with many new ones, will move to the Academy, to be housed in areas for prototyping and for planning using CAD programs.
Beyond helping students turn ideas into reality, this new fabrication center will allow them to translate theory into tangible results. For example, Academy Science Department Head Anna Liem '93 sees students applying physics principles by building machinery based on those principles and gaining a deep "materials sense" of how to work with things.
Even better, she thinks the new space will breed the kind of flexible thinking that engineers need. "The act of making helps students learn to take on challenges they don't know how to solve and promotes an active problem-solving process," says Liem.
Long before the new Academy learning lab became a topic of discussion on campus, the robotics workshop located in Case Middle School served as the gathering spot for engineering enthusiasts. It buzzes through the evening hours and weekends with students of different ages designing robots, printing 3D parts and assembling devices.
While robotics competitions drive much of the activity, Dengler sees the benefits of robotics going deeper: to develop the engineering mindset, one that centers on the creative process. "Our goal is to help students think and approach problems like engineers. That involves not just conceptualizing the problem, but also building the solution," explains Dengler. This creative problem-solving method lies at the core of his Academy engineering electives. Students can choose between competitive robotics or an independent project – the key is creation.
Creating new solutions, not churning out widgets, is what engineering is all about, stresses Dengler. Today, when nanobots can swim in the human bloodstream and a particle accelerator can detect the subatomic Higgs boson, engineering has grown infinitely more varied and complex. The School's expanding engineering program reflects what's happening in the field and aims to get students thinking about possibilities.
To nurture this growth, Richardson's gift also helped to hire engineering/education specialist Justin Lai, who came to Punahou in the fall from MIT's School of Engineering. This year, he is partnering with Academy and Junior School faculty to infuse the rewarding characteristics of applied learning to courses in a range of subject areas, including science.
Hirano and William Suh '17 test a hydroponic system, which has the ability to grow plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil.
In Academy science faculty Hanno Adams' physics classes, for example, students picked their own questions to answer and followed the "go forth and measure" mantra of Lai's MIT experience. Enoch Cheng '15 tested a group of metal Hydro Flasks to find out which kept water cool for longest and graphed his findings – the bigger the flask, the more consistent the temperature. Lacrosse player Sophia Kim '16 analyzed whether the stick's angle affected how far the ball traveled.
Both liked the way their work connected concepts they were studying to their everyday lives. From Lai's point of view, seeing those connections will benefit students, no matter where their future takes them.
In summer 2015, Lai is rolling out a new Academy elective, "Introduction to Engineering," which will – among other things – bring practicing engineers into the classroom, providing a taste of life in the field.
Engineers in Action
"We have a motto: we're not just designers, we're makers," says Casey Agena '94, who serves as both Punahou K – 8 Summer School director and a faculty advisor for the new Civil Engineering Club in the Academy – one of only five such clubs currently operating in Hawai'i high schools. Now in its second year, the club has grown from 12 founding members to over 30 students carrying out its motto.
On weekends and afternoons this past fall, the students built a machine that separates microplastics from sand for the inaugural Sand Sifter Challenge organized by the nonprofit organization Sustainable Coastlines. More recently, they unveiled a prototype for a lanai-size hydroponics unit at a community showcase for urban agriculture organized by Kanu Hawai'i. Portable and easily replicated, the hydroponics creation will be donated to families sheltering at the Institute for Human Services.
Countless hours spent welding, cutting and combing the aisles of Home Depot might not sound like a draw for teenagers. But Agena sees internal motivation driving the students, with real-life engagement as their reward. "This past year they've seen that they can actually make something that's real, that's put to use," says Agena.
Hirano demonstrates the club's creation at a community showcase organized by Kanu Hawai'i.
That experience of producing and contributing something useful motivates them to keep learning. Ryan Hirano '16 helped to demonstrate the "mini ag unit" the team developed. Already an experienced robotics competitor, he says that these club opportunities "make engineering even bigger."
Liem, Academy Science Department head, agrees that linking learning with students' lives outside of school walls is critical. "Because we're focusing on the whole child and his or her whole life, we want to prepare students for the world beyond school," says Liem. "And that is where the hands-on experiences can really help. They see what they can do with what they've learned and they experience the creative process that is critical for students."
When the classroom experience fades, the act of creating something new remains – whether it's an experiment, a machine, a prototype, a sculpture or, like Georgopapadakos' animated cat, a little bit of everything.
Cynthia Wessendorf is a freelance writer and designer, and a current Punahou parent.