Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 7 - April 2020
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedApril 15, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 8 - May/June 2020

Search this Publication



STEAM activities provide a context for authentic problem solving and have the ability to reach more students than science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) alone.


Integrated science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) activities provide opportunities for students to creatively engage in authentic problem-solving activities. Each of the subjects focuses on problem solving in different ways. For example, engineering and art are similar in their design processes: identify a problem, brainstorm possible solutions, prototype, test, and improve based on data or feedback (Bequette & Bequette, 2012). An emphasis on problem solving is often codified in standards. For example, the first standard for mathematical practice in the Common Core State Standards and the first science and engineering practice in Next Generation Science Standards focus on defining and solving problems (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; NGSS Lead states, 2013). Standard 10 in ITEEA’s Standards for Technological Literacy focuses on “understanding the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving” (p. 210).

Equally as important, though, is the emphasis on solving authentic problems. Authentic activities have a combination of ten design characteristics: real-world relevance, ill-defined problem, complex tasks requiring ongoing investigation, multiple perspectives, collaboration, reflection, interdisciplinary connections, integrated assessment, polished products, and multiple interpretations and outcomes (Reeves, Herrington, & Oliver, 2002). As Roberts and Chapman (2017) noted, “The big idea is that the problem is grounded in the real world but is open for interpretation, complex enough to require sustained work with the help of peers, layered to require reflection, and results in a variety of tangible solutions” (p. 16). STEAM activities provide a context for authentic problem solving and have the ability to reach more students than science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) alone. Cook, Bush, and Cox (2017) noted, “STEAM teaching is about the student rather than the subject areas—students may see themselves not just as future scientists or engineers but also as designers or creators” (p. 86). This shift broadens applications and contexts in which problems can be explored.

Informal learning opportunities provide an ideal setting in which students can engage in authentic problem solving. STEAM is particularly useful in these settings. Teachers often do not have the opportunity to facilitate in-depth STEAM projects in formal school settings due to time, resources, and pressure to cover material for high-stakes tests (Meyers, et al., 2013). However, informal learning experiences can complement formal learning by giving context for in-class lessons and exercises, providing access and opportunity to authentic environments and professionals, and by extending school learning through application-based hands-on learning (Roberts, et al., 2018). Informal learning environments are typically organized in a way that encourages learning through real-world examples (Meredith, 2010; Popovic and Lederman, 2015), which provides an opportunity for students to engage in authentic problem solving.

With these considerations in mind, the authors designed a weeklong STEAM summer camp that focused on authentic problem-solving through art and robotics. The camp was hosted at a local art museum in the Midwestern U.S. and consisted of high school students. It was facilitated by an art educator and two university faculty members, one a computer scientist and the other a STEM educator. In designing the camp, the facilitators sought to encourage the development of students’ introductory proficiency with coding while providing opportunities for students to develop interpersonal skills. The two formal goals of the camp, then, were to provide access and opportunity for learning to code and to develop students’ abilities to communicate, collaborate, and apply critical thinking and creativity to solve problems.


These goals were situated within the context of the designed world. Standards for Technological Literacy describes the designed world as “the product of a design process that provides ways to turn resources—materials, tools and machines, people, information, energy, capital, and time—into products and systems” (p. 140). The facilitators used increasingly complex challenges to engage students in authentic problem solving in the designed world. Table 1 contains a timeline of the camp. The first four days were spent at the art museum where students worked with Arduino kits to learn basic programming that was then incorporated into art projects. In addition to creating projects, students spent time guided through the galleries to glean essential insights from featured pieces that could be synthesized into their work. On the final day, students traveled to the university campus to see applications of art and robotics, visit research labs, and to present their projects to members of the university community. In the following sections, we highlight project details, student reflections, facilitator reflections, and lessons learned.


TETMJ20RbtsFig1Marshmallow Challenge

This classic design challenge was used to introduce students to problem solving and group norms for the camp. Students worked in pairs to build the tallest tower they could using dry spaghetti and marshmallows. After the first round, students collectively reflected on what worked well and what did not. They were then given three minutes to brainstorm for round two. At the end of round two, students engaged in a similar reflection exercise.              

Throughout the students’ reflections, one lesson consistently emerged: the importance of failing fast. The students who were most successful in building tall towers did not get distressed or delayed by minor setbacks. As Devon described, “mistakes are mistakes until you learn from them and make them not mistakes.” Instead, they failed fast by quickly analyzing the problem and working on a solution. The quick, iterative process of trial and error did not waste time focused on problems; instead, it emphasized the importance of implementing solutions, evaluating them, and optimizing based on what was learned.

              This activity also emphasized the importance of collaboration. Students worked with partners to plan, build, and reflect. While Jaquan said he “learned to work together” in his design journal, Kiara offered a deeper insight. “I learned that you work better when you are in a group that has multiple ideas to try rather than working by yourself,” she wrote. As Kiara noted, collaboration was not just a way to share the workload of building a tower. She focused on the importance of multiple ideas. The variety of perspectives students bring to group work is valuable as they search for solutions to challenges they are given.

Facilitators noted that the more disparate the approaches, the more creative the solutions. This observation reinforces the benefits of failing fast. When students fail fast, they can explore multiple varying approaches iteratively. That is, they try an idea, test it, and improve it, ultimately leading to an optimized or innovative solution. Sometimes failing fast during the testing phase motivates students to arrive at creative and unconventional solutions.


Visual Communication Through Sketching

The next project students worked through was a sketching exercise in which they were introduced to the basics of sketching using a dot, a line, and an arc. Eventually, students were asked to draw a picture when they were given a seemingly random word. For the more technically inclined students, this activity initially posed many problems, as several did not describe themselves as creative or artistic. Joshua expressed this as he noted the sketching activity required him “to be more creative than” usual. As Joshua’s reflection suggests, this exercise was not only meant to boost students’ sketching confidence, but also to encourage them to think creatively about how to represent different images. As students progress through grade school into high school, they typically spend more time writing than drawing. Hence, these students felt slightly uncomfortable communicating in this modality. Tracy reflected, “I learned to think differently about sketching.”


Joshua did not just see sketching as a creative exercise; he also saw it as a tool for brainstorming. “I would like to know a bit more about sketching because it will allow me to be quicker at getting an idea of what I want to do,” he wrote in his design journal. Joshua’s perspective also connects to a previous lesson learned: failing fast. As a tool, sketching would allow Joshua to engage in divergent thinking, work through multiple ideas, learn from mistakes, and make changes as needed. Thus, sketching was not just an important means of being expressive, it was also an important tool for creating.


TETMJ20RbtsFig2Painting With Light

The next project required students to integrate computer coding, electronic components, and acrylic paint on paper. They conceptualized a painting that would feature programmed LED lights as part of the composition. The art educator discussed how artists use light in paintings and took the students on a quick tour of the museum to highlight specific techniques artists use. The computer scientist introduced students to coding with the Arduino kit and focused on basic understandings of programming. Specifically, students learned how to program LED lights to turn on and off, fade, and blink using variables, inputs, outputs, and essential control structures. With the basics of both subjects covered, students were told to create some sketches that could later be turned into a painting that incorporated the lights. Figure 1 shows the variety of sketches students created for their painting. As Figure 2 shows, the students depicted very different items in their paintings, ranging from a football field to a dinosaur to one student’s conceptualization of the universe.

Students overwhelmingly identified the unique skills they learned by completing this project. Tyler offered that he learned “how to somewhat paint and how to fade LEDs successfully. Also, how to use the loop” when coding. Eva commented, “I learned more about painting and mixing colors.” Devon focused on the technical aspect of wiring the Arduino breadboards. He noted, “wireing [sic] is kinda fun but somewhat difficult” (Figure 3, page 8). Devon’s response focused on a skill he developed but also on the process, noting that there is an element of fun in a challenge.

Other students also reflected on the process of creating. For example, Kiara “learned things don’t always go as planned… [specifically] where the lights didn’t do what I wanted.” Similarly, Jaquan reflected, “how hard it is to do combining.” When students encountered unforeseen technical problems, it did not deter their progress. In fact, they found ways to pivot their idea and take a new direction, leading to a more creative and innovative project. The experience helped teach these students to embrace setbacks and look for serendipity as a path to creative solutions. Even when things did not go as planned or students faced an obstacle, it was a productive challenge that students viewed as fun. Tyler surmised, “it is really fun, and I can see how I could create more things to entertain people.”


TETMJ20RbtsFig4Steampunk Kinetic Art

This project required students to design a sculpture with a steampunk aesthetic that incorporated robotics by having some part of the sculpture move. The art educator led the group on a walk through the museum’s sculpture garden to talk about form and kinesthetic components of the sculptures. The computer scientist built on students’ Arduino understandings to teach students how to program different motors, incorporating several external libraries to expand functionality. Students were then put into groups of 2 or 3 and created sketches of potential sculptures. After their brainstorming, they picked one sculpture and decided on the materials they could use. As Figure 4 (page 12)shows, the students created a variety of sculptures, ranging from a steampunk head to an anachronistic clock.             

Students’ reflections focused mostly on the skills they learned in coding and art making. However, Joshua indicated that the lessons learned in previous projects influenced his perceived value of iteration in the problem-solving process. For example, in explaining what he enjoyed about the project, he noted, “it’s fun and entertaining to fail and fix my mistakes over time.” The facilitators had highlighted the importance of this lesson earlier in the week; however, Joshua did not embrace it until he had experienced it throughout the projects he completed. By the time he reached this project, he had incorporated it into and claimed it as part of his problem-solving process.             

Facilitators also observed a choice overload (Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, & Todd, 2010) brought on by the open-ended nature of the project. Students were able to choose from a variety of materials including wood, metal, foam, paint, hot glue, and/or wire, while also creating any subject they wanted. Instead of observing creativity, the facilitators noticed a selection paralysis in which students took much longer to decide on a direction for their projects. Thus, one important lesson is that while open-ended projects are required for authentic problem solving, constraints help trigger creativity, as unlimited choice can have unintended consequences (Brockett, 2006).



When designing this informal STEAM summer camp, the goals of the camp were to provide access and opportunity for learning to code and to develop students’ abilities to communicate, collaborate, and apply critical thinking and creativity to solve problems. As evident in the students’ reflections, these goals were achieved through the lessons they learned. Students learned the importance of multiple ideas in collaborating, how to learn quickly from mistakes, and how to troubleshoot when they encountered problems in completing their challenges. They also identified discipline-specific skills, such as Tyler commenting that he learned how to use a loop, or Devon discussing the difficulties of precisely wiring an Arduino breadboard. More broadly, students learned how to paint, sculpt, or “how to code,” as Jaquan said. Still, reflections clearly indicate that while students benefited from the exposure to code and were able to creatively incorporate it into their art projects, they had not acquired the level of mastery associated with sustained learning.             

Even though all the students were high school aged and “digital natives,” their familiarity with technology did not translate into proficiency in coding. It is common to mistake digital natives as being technologically proficient due to the omnipresence of technology in their daily lives. As the facilitators experienced in this camp, however, there is “mounting evidence that [suggests] many young people’s actual use of digital technologies remain rather more limited in scope than the digital native rhetoric would suggest” (Selwyn, 2009, p. 372). Indeed, working with a computer scientist allowed students to learn the basics of coding (e.g., variables, inputs, outputs, and basic control structures). Students’ reflections regularly identified the coding skills as things they learned. Thus, while many lessons were gleaned from this camp, one of the most salient is the importance of understanding how to scaffold digital natives’ learning experiences with technology so that they not only can interact with technology but use it as a form of creative expression.              

While students identified coding as one thing they learned, they only received an introduction. The greatest learning the facilitators observed was in students’ emotional intelligence. This was demonstrated through their increasingly successful collaborations throughout the week. The collaborations included more supportive behaviors from students, such as when students would pause their work to help other students when they struggled. This eagerness to help and to share their burgeoning knowledge with one another demonstrated the cohesion of the group. Ultimately, due in part to the norms set on the first day and reinforced throughout the camp, students valued each others’ progress as much as they valued their own. This empathetic behavior was unexpected, yet very important in the camp’s success.

The positive experience of this week-long camp was evident in students’ reflections and in their abilities to successfully apply the new skills they learned to complete the challenges they were given. Because these challenges were presented as authentic, real-world problems, students were able to work collaboratively for an extended period of time to create “a variety of tangible solutions” (Roberts and Chapman, 2016, p. 9). The openness of each task provided students with the opportunities to engage their diverse interests, backgrounds, and experiences to create tangible products to meet the demands of the challenges. Moreover, the coding process was demystified as students consistently expressed more interest and more ability to engage in coding after the camp. Using code for creative projects empowered students to persevere in learning to code and led to increased interest in further learning about coding.



Bequette, J. W. & Bequette, M. B. (2012). A place for art and design education in the STEM conversation. Art Education, 65(2), 40-47.

Brockett, R. G. (2006). Self-directed learning and the paradox of choice. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 3(2), 27-33.

Cook, K., Bush, S. B., & Cox, R. (2017). From STEM to STEAM. Science and Children, 54(6), 86-93.

International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA). (2007). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology (3rd ed.). Reston, VA: Author.

Meredith, C. C. (2010). Applied learning in teacher education: Developing learning communities among pre-service candidates and urban elementary schools. The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning, 6(2), 80-85.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Governors Association Center for best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for mathematics. Washington, DC: Author.

Popovic, G. & Lederman, J. S. (2015). Implications of informal education experiences for mathematics teachers’ ability to make connections beyond the formal classroom. School Science and Mathematics, 115(3), 129-140.

Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activities and online learning. Annual Conference Proceedings of Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. Perth, Australia.

Roberts, T. & Chapman, P. (2017). Authentically engaging elementary students in the designed world. Children’s Technology and Engineering, 21(4), 15-17.

Roberts, T., Jackson, C., Mohr-Schroeder, M. J., Bush, S. B., Maiorca, C., Cavalcanti, M., Schroeder, D. C., Delaney, A., Putnam, L., & Cremeans, C. (2018). Students’ perceptions of STEM learning after participating in a summer informal learning experience. International Journal of STEM Education. Retrieved from

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2010). Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(3), 409-425.

Selwyn, N. (2009, July). The digital native—myth and reality. In Aslib proceedings (Vol. 61, No. 4, pp. 364-379). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.



Thomas Roberts is an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio where he teaches courses in elementary STEM subjects. He is also President of ITEEA’s Elementary STEM Council and co-field editor of The Elementary STEM Journal. He can be reached at

Jerry Schnepp is an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He teaches courses in Interactive Media, User Experience and Digital Photography. He is also the director of the Collab Lab, a hands-on, creative space for students and faculty to engage in collaborative work. He can be reached at


This is a refereed article.