The STEAM+ Jamboree
Design for Impact
My name is Matthew Coates, and I am a project manager with the EU STEM Coalition. The EU STEM Coalition is an international network of organizations in the field of STEM. It is dedicated to facilitating knowledge sharing, and generally assisting in the development of STEM education all across Europe. To this end, I occasionally have the chance to partake in conferences. I do so as to take the pulse of the STEM educational world, and share my findings with the organization’s network, as well as anyone interested in the topic.
On March the 30th, 2023, I had the pleasure of being able to attend the STEAM+ Jamboree at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, The Netherlands. The event was hosted by STEAM+, a project involving 18 partners from all over the European Union. The Jamboree itself was being attended by a large and international crowd. There was a wide range of countries represented. These included, but were not limited to, nations as disparate as Norway and Romania. The attendees themselves were not only diverse in their nationality, but also in their professions. The name tags which were assigned to us upon entry to the auditorium indicated that professors, government officials, students, and PhD candidates from all over Europe had come to Groningen to learn about STEAM+.
Before describing the events of this Jamboree, it is important to clarify some terms and concepts. What is perhaps most essential to first understand is the meaning of the acronym STEAM+. According to the programs organizers, STEAM+ stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, (All other subjects), and Math. With this in mind, the STEAM+ project intends to provide educational policy makers with informational tools. These tools are designed to develop interdisciplinary groups aimed at addressing modern issues. Specifically, issues requiring a STEM based solution. They call the interdisciplinary groups “laboratories of Innovation”.
The theory behind the laboratories of Innovation is that having a group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds cooperate together in an equal and nonhierarchical context is an optimal means to solve the societal problems of today. The STEAM+ project believes that when people from a wider range of expertise work together towards the same ends, in the same group, they will come to more appropriate and effective solutions than teams who consist of members specializing in only one subject. These groups can also include individuals who would normally not work together as colleagues in the same settings, such as students, professors, and even policymakers.
Before diving into the subject of the STEAM+ project, we were introduced to Fabienne Beernaert, from the LUCA School of Arts in Belgium. She was unable to attend the Jamboree in person that day, but she was able to video call into the conference from her home. Fabienne too has been working on developing an interdisciplinary program of her own called Design for Impact. Design for Impact is a master’s class at the LUCA School of Arts. In this class, students from a variety of academic backgrounds come together to address societal issues by undertaking change making activities. Like with the laboratories of Innovation being utilized by the STEAM+ project, Design for Impact incorporates the perspectives of students from the natural sciences, as well as the humanities and fine arts, so as to provide the group with as full a perspective as possible on solving the problem they are facing.
The pedagogical theory behind Design for Impact is a complex one, but well worth examining. In practice, it begins with a great deal of reflection. Reflection on one’s self, ones role in the project at hand, and the current needs of the world. Ultimately, Fabienne would like to inspire a new mindset in her students relationship to the world. One in which humanity is not aimed at exploiting it, but rather cooperating with it in a symbiosis, to the benefit of both. She also stated that she would like to teach students in this program how to persuade individuals they encounter in their work who might have a dominating and homocentric mindset to come around to the program’s more enlighten global ideological perspective.
Fabienne would like to see Design for Impact go from being only a master’s course to being a full on master’s program at LUCA School of Arts. Additionally, she mentioned an interest in developing a network of teachers who share certain aspects of Design for Impact’s goals.
As keynote speaker, Fabienne set the thematic tone excellently for the introduction of the STEAM+ project, by way of her philosophy regarding the synthesis of science and the arts for the betterment of all.
Quick Chat with Norwegian Honors Students
What came next was a short coffee break in which I spoke with two students from Oslo University in Norway. These two explained to me that they were a part of an honors program at their university, which attempts to bring students from different academic fields together so as to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction and dialog. One of these students was majoring in philosophy, and the other in math. Despite being from two separate academic disciplines, they said that this honors program gave them opportunities to not only cooperate formally, but also to discuss and ponder the material from their classes in a more casual setting. They both felt like the program they were participating in was achieving its goal of facilitating transdisciplinary interconnection, and recommended it highly.
Trail Digital Map
After a half hour break in which we all enjoyed coffee, tea, and cookies, it was time for another presentation. The next speaker, Anne-Mieke Vandamme, also could not attend in person that day, due to a cold. Fortunately, though, she was able to present via video call, despite her sickness. She presented “Trail”, to us. A program which can essentially be thought of as a roadmap to achieving the STEAM+ Innovation Labs, mentioned earlier. Trail is being built in a digital format, allowing it to give in-depth and comprehensive directions as to how the various actors involved in an innovation lab should approach their roles. Anne-Mieke gave us a quick demonstration of how this works on the Trail online program. She showed us how a policy maker could follow their designated line on the digital map to find out how they should proceed, so as to facilitate an Innovation lab. As she sequentially selected the steps intended for policy makers, lists of instructions and videos appeared, to illustrate the directions. She also showed us how someone else from a different professional background could easily do the same thing by choosing to follow the line intended for their group.
Normally, I would include a link to the website in this article. However, the website has not been launched yet. Once it is, though, I would recommend that potential stakeholders to an Innovation Lab project explore Trail. The map is clear, detailed, and user friendly. The steps it provides are suggested to be optimal by a great deal of research, as well as expert consideration. It seemed like an excellent way to efficiently direct interested users in what needs to be done to achieve their objectives.
The next segment was about the Innovation Labs themselves. This segment was presented by two professors who had partaken in the labs. One was from Klaipeda University in Lithuania, name James Mc Geever. The other was from Ca’Foscari University of Venice, named Luca Corazzini.
They spoke to us about what it was actually like to undertake an Innovation Lab on a practical level. They said that they found the none-hierarchical structure of the lab very effective, and to the benefit of the whole process. Normally, they explained, students and professors are not able to work together as equals. They see each other as being too “other” to communicate with freely. This is very unfortunate, because both parties have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. In the Innovation Lab, though, all members involved were free to put their best skills, knowledge, and opinions forward. This led to the development of a highly productive environment in which a wide range of potential issues could be recognized and dealt with.
For these first Innovation Labs, there was a contest held to find which was the most successful. The plans of the groups involved were graded on qualities such as how contextually transferable they were, how creative were the solutions to the problems they identified, and, of course, how impactful the plans themselves would be.
The winner of the contest was a Norwegian lab which invented a method to reduce the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. The approach they decided to take was putting dramatic images of environmental pollution on the bags, to remind people of the consequences of their choices. This strategy was inspired by the addition of pictures on cigarette packets of cancer and death, also intended to dissuade people from purchasing them.
People were polled on how likely they would be to not use a plastic bag after seeing the images selected by the lab members. The results of the poll were very promising, indicating that the plan could indeed be impactful.
This project was an excellent example of the STEAM+ theory, in that people with backgrounds in multiple academic disciplines came together to address a public problem which required a STEM solution. The issue of pollution was identified and understood using environmental science. The pictures on the bags were produced using fine art. And the production of the design for the bags, as well as a video made to advertise them, was done using digital technology. People with all of these academic backgrounds came together to develop a great result. It remains to be seen if this plan will be implemented, however the presenters said that several environmental groups were interested in making it happen. With this being so, perhaps we will begin to see plastic bags with dissuasive images on them in the future. Then, ideally, fewer plastic bags in general, thanks to STEAM+.
A Fish Bowl Exercise
The final event of the day was conducted by a number of university students who were involved in STEAM+ innovation labs. These students held a so called “fish bowl exercise” for their segment of the jamboree. This entailed everyone in attendance first splitting up into two groups. Then, each of these groups formed circles around a set of five chairs, which were facing each other. The leaders of the exercise explained to us that the inner circle of chairs was meant to have a conversation, while the outer circle observed. If people in the outer circle felt like they had something to contribute to the conversation happening in the inner circle, they could join by either replacing someone in the inner circle, or taking a free seat, if one was available. Conversely, if someone in the inner circle felt like they no longer had something to say, they could leave to the outer circle.
The moderators of the fish bowl exercise arranged it so that there would be three students in the inner circle at all times, and at least one person who was not a student in there with them. They nominated me to be the first of the nonstudents in the inner circle. We were given questions to discuss such as “How do we involve each other in defining/redefining higher education?” and “How long do we give ourselves to reform higher education”. I primarily directed these questions at the students, seeing as they were more involved with higher education than I am, although I also asked follow up questions to their responses, so as to keep the conversation going.
As this went on, teachers, educational policy makers, and other students came in and out of the inner circle. The discussion was lively, and everyone from our rather large and diverse group who felt like contributing their perspectives had an opportunity to speak. In the end, the students who were leading the event gathered the answers to the discussion points generated in each group, and compared them to one another. Once this was finished, the host of the jamboree brought out food, and gave everyone time to discuss the ideas and happenings of that day.
I am very glad that I was given the chance to attend the STEAM+ Jamboree. The whole event was well structured, and the topics involved were clearly presented. More than that though, I found it fascinating to learn about the innovative ways in which the STEAM+ project has been approaching the topic of STEAM+ as a means of solving societal issues. In my opinion, this project was an ideal manifestation of the STEAM+ concept in action. I found their philosophy on academic diversity compelling, and I am excited to hear about what sorts of solutions their Innovation Labs will come up with in the future.