'Hands-on learning builds Steam confidence'

Letting children play, make mistakes and engage with core ideas around Steam-subjects in a hands-on manner is vital for boosting confidence

Dan Worth

Children engaged in hands-on learning

There’s a famous maxim attributed to Confucius that states: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Whether he actually said it is debated but the point is clear – there is often no better way to learn something than by doing it.

This idea underpins much of Early Years education with hands-on learning at the heart of many activities – often under the guise of "play". Yet hands-on teaching often fades away over time as more traditional learning takes centre stage.

Increasingly though there is an awareness that when it comes to science, technology, maths, arts and engineering (Steam) the lack of hands-on learning opportunities is detrimental to children’s understanding and, therefore, confidence in these subject areas.

Indeed, a survey by The Harris Poll on behalf of LEGO Education found fewer than 1 in 5 students feels “very confident” when it comes to learning Steam subjects. However, the same poll found the vast majority of teachers (95 per cent) and students (89 per cent) believe hands-on learning builds confidence in Steam subjects.

Best practice teaching

So how can schools address this lack of confidence by providing hands-on learning that teachers and pupils want? Academics at Newcastle University are working to address this exact question by researching best practice concepts for teaching Steam subjects in hands-on, practical ways. 

PhD candidate Megan Venn-Wycherley is leading this research, and as part of this has worked to deliver Steam-based lessons with a school just outside the city, where she and has seen first-hand the issues that exist.

“There is a belief that young people are digital natives and therefore good at understanding how computers work. But actually we have to make things like learning computing more tangible to engage young people and help them start to build a mental model of how technology works.”

One interesting finding from the work she has done so far is that incorporating the arts element of Steam is key for many students to act as a "bridge" that helps them become interested in science-related subjects and build confidence around their abilities.

An example of this was by working with pupils at the school to develop a motorised air-freshener. This involved building and decorating a paper fan and affixing it to a sweet tin that was also decorated and filled with homemade potpourri. A small motor was then attached to the fan over the tin so that it wafted the smell out in the room it was placed in.

In another project, girls interested in organising a dance workshop first designed a poster to encourage sign-ups, and then built an interactive voting system to find out which day would be most popular to host classes.

“The key thing was using the technology was meaningful to them, so they wanted to learn how to use it,” says Venn-Wycherley.

Building resilience

Not only have these initiatives given children the chance to get hands-on and build confidence but Venn-Wycherley says she has also seen how it has helped build resilience to try things out and not give up if they don’t work first time.

“Lots of pupils say, ‘it’s not working, it’s broken’ when things first go wrong, but over time you see them start to realise that if something isn’t working it’s about saying, ‘I’ll try this instead,’ or, ‘Maybe this wire is not connected properly,’ and start to learn for themselves.”

The University Technical College (UTC) of South Durham is another institution that puts hands-on learning at the heart of much of what it does, as design and engineering teacher Stephanie Jackson explains: “The positives of incorporating hands-on learning into any part of the curriculum is that you are going to provide a better vehicle for learning.”

At UTC this ranges from everything from hanging tennis balls to show the structure of atoms to building devices in its mechatronics labs.

Jackson agrees that a big part of this process is to ensure children are taught to learn from mistakes in any Steam learning experience, and to explain this is not something to be afraid of.

“Education can be very black and white sometimes with a pass or fail mentality. But we try to get students into the mindset that failing is OK, that it’s part of life and this can build a lot of resilience into pupils and they gain confidence from that.”

Of course hands-on learning requires schools to provide kit to children that can help with this goal. Firms such as LEGO are aiming to do just that, bringing tools to the market, such as its SPIKE Prime Set, that are designed to provide creative ways for children to design and build hardware that can then be programmed via a simple drag-and-drop coding language – fusing arts and science in a practical, engaging way.

Then there are tools such as Raspberry Pi and the BBC’s Micro:Bit that have also proved popular by offering the ability for schools to let pupils get hands-on with Steam-related concepts in fun, engaging ways, helping play a crucial role in building children’s confidence and resilience while learning.

Devices like these won’t change things overnight, but they demonstrate the increased focus – from industry to academia – on giving schools the tools and techniques to foster confidence and resilience in children around Steam-related subjects.

Teachers keen to boost their class's coding skills can get involved in EU Coding Week, designed to help make learning computing more tangible to engage young people and build confidence in this area.

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