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STEAM Taster Programme with Transition Year learners

This academic year, we are facilitating a STEAM Programme with Transition Year (TY) students in Coláiste na Sceilge, Cahersiveen Co Kerry. We are working with groups in five-week rotations, have completed one rotation, and are currently in the middle of the second, taking us up to Christmas break.

The STEAM programme is an adaptation of our ‘Problem to Pitch’ module, taking selected aspects of lessons and challenges, that support young people to enjoy learning while building adaptive skills in design thinking and the four C’s- Communication, Creativity, Collaboration and Critical Thinking.

The overarching aims of the programme are to:

  • Introduce learners to the five stages of design thinking

  • Increase awareness of the importance of design in problem solving

  • Facilitate the use of the Four C’s- communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity

  • Promote highly interactive environments as the foundation for learning key skills

  • Connect the phases of design thinking to real-world contexts

  • Exposing learners to an approach that ‘encourages and facilitates unorthodox methods and strategies’ (Rose and Smith, 2011, 8)

The conventional state curricula frequently falls short in adequately equipping students for the swiftly changing dynamics of our ever more intricate world. A new educational paradigm is emerging, emphasising distinct values and solutions rooted in the concepts of restoration and adaptability. Ireland's curriculum transformation has set precedents in this regard, notably the approach which viewed children as active creators of knowledge rather than passive recipients of information.

Design-led learning is a critical imperative in our educational system, fostering a range of skills that extend far beyond aesthetics and artistic endeavours. In an era defined by rapid technological advancements and complex problem-solving, it is essential to instil in students the ability to think critically, creatively, and empathetically. Design-led learning encourages students to grapple with real-world issues, envision innovative solutions, and iterate upon their ideas – skills that are invaluable in a modern workforce. Moreover, this approach promotes interdisciplinary thinking, blending subjects like science, technology, engineering, art, and maths (STEAM) to cultivate well-rounded individuals who can adapt to the multifaceted challenges of the 21st century. By integrating design into education, we not only prepare students for the future but also empower them to become active, innovative, and socially conscious contributors to our ever-evolving society.

Week 1: Design Challenge Stations

A station-based activity is a great way to see how the learners work together in teams to solve a problem through design and build, without too much pre-loaded content and skills. Each team was given a challenge and materials and made a whole- class decision on how long they wanted to have for the design and build phase of the session. Challenges included:

  • Build a tower that holds the weight of 'x' (the weight is typically 1-2x 400ml containers filled with water)

  • Build a bridge that a toy race car can drive across

  • Build a boat that floats with weight added (2 x 400ml containers filled with water)

The teams had varying degrees of success in this task. For example, elements of their prototype buckled under weight or couldn’t support itself. Consistent monitoring during the build stage enabled on-the-spot reflection, prompted by facilitators, to support teams in ideating their design before the testing stage.

At the testing stage, all teams were able to observe how well the designs met the challenge. They were then tasked with taking another team’s prototype and iterating it to improve on the design. This supports reflection and ideation skills, as well as further design on a prototype they hadn’t worked on before.

The session concluded with connecting learners to the phases of design thinking they have worked on.

Week 2: Increasing the Challenge

Now that the learners had been exposed to the elements of design thinking and worked together on a challenge (that they all have a solid chance of succeeding at), it was time to go through the same process with a more complex challenge.

In teams, learners were asked to design and build a tower of a height no less than 30cm that could withstand a hurricane. To do this, they could only use newspaper and tape, and the hurricane was simulated by a hairdryer. In this session, the learners were supported with a mini lesson on rapid response prototyping; exploring three basic elements that will prove useful- surfaces, structures and fasteners/joiners. Before moving on to the main design challenge (the tower building), they worked in teams to build examples of the three elements. They then needed to apply the elemental knowledge to their towers, to ensure a greater chance of success withstanding the hurricane. It is here that they were connected to real-world demonstrations of these techniques by examining structures such as the Eiffel Tower.

Week 3 Worst Idea Ever

Worst Idea Ever is an ideation activity that encouraged learners to deliberately explore 'bad' ideas such as a chocolate teapot or reading glasses without lenses. This inverted approach not only alleviates tension, but also enhances their self-assurance and ignites their creative thinking, enabling them to work out ways of turning these ideas from 'bad' to 'good'. For example, the chocolate teapot was turned into a hot chocolate stirring spoon, a glass hammer became a ceremonial token and a car with no engine transformed into temporary shelter.

Week 4 Considering the user

Now that the learners had three sessions to practise their design and build skills, it was time to focus on a key component of design thinking that is often overlooked in other disciplines. Empathy is a key phase of the process as it is vital to have an understanding of the audience you are designing for. We wanted to introduce learners to empathic design through engagement with a user’s needs. In this session we used our adaptation of Stanford University’s five chairs challenge, enabling learners to begin to think of the users’ needs and begin to integrate these concepts into their design ideas.

Week 5 Ready Steady Build

The final week of the programme supported learners to use all the skills of the previous weeks in a final building challenge. The challenge is an engaging and competitive event that requires participants to construct various structures or projects within a limited timeframe, using specific materials or guidelines. In this challenge, learners were asked to:

Design a carrier that can hold the weight of a brick to and from specified points. Each component of the carrier must be made from a different material. You must include a minimum of two techniques you have practised using in previous sessions- Structure/Fastening / Joining/Surface.

The challenge encouraged creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, and adaptability. It is a fun and dynamic way to promote collaboration and innovation while fostering a sense of excitement and urgency among participants.

Reflecting on feedback

At the end of each session, we engaged in a 10-minute reflection task with learners. Using our 321 Reflective Method (three things they learnt, two things they would like to know more about, and one comment on their overall opinion of the class or improvements) and Mustimeter, learners were able to anonymously give feedback on the session, which allowed us to further iterate the programme for future groups.

Overall, learners have been positive about the session and the programme. They like working in self-selected teams to solve a challenge. Most enjoy the time limits put on design, but have often suggested more time is necessary.

Final reflection

By approaching the five weeks as a design- thinking taster programme, it enables us to ‘drip feed’ the design-thinking process to the learners, in a fun, interactive and safe-risk space. They are prompted to think about the phases of design thinking they have worked with in each session, and consider how design is important in solving a problem or challenge. Asking them to reflect, both during the build stage and at the end of the session, develops their critical thinking and communication skills. Limited resources and time means they need to think creatively and communicate clearly to their team members.

Our final group rotation is completed in April 2024 and we will provide a full academic-year update.

Rose, C and Smith, B. (2011) Workshop: Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art/Science Pedagogy Rhode Island School of Design, Jan 2011

Stanford (2023) The 5-Chair Challenge. Available at: (Accessed: 31.10.2023)

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