What a 9 Year Old Taught Me About STEM Education

I can’t stop thinking about Caine’s Arcade.

If you haven’t seen it, you gotta check it out. It’s a bit dated – 2012 is ancient history in the EdTech world – but to date, this YouTube video has over 8 million views. Caine’s Arcade is still inspiring people everywhere.

If you still haven’t seen it, then let me break it down for you. Caine, a nine-year-old boy hanging out at his dad’s auto parts store in a rough East LA neighborhood, had an idea to use the stuff lying around – mostly used cardboard – to create his own arcade. One particularly inspired customer stumbled upon it and…well, just go watch the video. Trust me, it’s worth your time.

I love this story because it reminds me about the power of STEM and how easy it can be to implement if you’re keeping your eye on the goal. When we educators aim to inspire and empower our students to do something great, we’ll find that often, we can deliver some life-changing learning experiences without breaking the bank on sophisticated robots and bleeding-edge technology.

cainesarcdecoachellaNot that there’s anything wrong with the shiny new tech.

Highly sophisticated, and usually pretty expensive, STEM and EdTech tools can totally be worth every penny in the hands of a great teacher. For one, providing students with the kinds of tools that they don’t have access to daily is a powerful way to make your school a place where students feel privileged to be. This isn’t quite as easy as it used to be, especially considering the powerful tools most of our students carry with them in their pockets. The technological power of a fairly modern smartphone is more powerful than the computers in most schools’ labs. It’s getting harder to “wow” our kids.

So, there’s a place for the expensive stuff. It can create the “wow” factor in your school when students feel like it’s not a place where they “have” to go, but rather, a place where they “get” to go. A school that invests in innovative tools will likely be the only place our students have the opportunity to build their own computer, their own robot, or their own (fill in the blank) with a 3D printer. Or, maybe it’s the only place where they can get their hands on professional-grade audio/video gear, inspiring them to create content with a bit more sophistication than their most recent Snapchat Story. High-end tools add validation to the work students are doing, inherently informing them that their education is worth the best that we can give them.

That said, a lot of the high-end stuff is simply cost-prohibitive for most educators. The video program I was able to help launch at my school would not have been possible without a tremendous amount of financial support in the form of grants from our school’s education foundation. Thanks to them, we have some pro-grade cameras and computers, but only a few. This means that we have a student access problem on our hands. There are only so many hours in the day for our students to use the awesome gear we have. Ironically, when some students get the chance to use the shiny new gear, they can be intimidated by it, for fear of breaking it. Other students become more interested in the gear itself than in the learning we educators should be emphasizing – the kind of learning that was so beautifully presented by Caine and his arcade.

So what happens if we focus more on the inexpensive stuff?  Can we still achieve the “wow” factor for our students? Can their work still be validated as important if they are working with things like used cardboard?

If you watched Caine’s Arcade, you know the answers to these questions.…seriously, go watch the video. Again.

The beauty of simplified STEM solutions is that they are accessible to all students, accessible anywhere, and not at all intimidating – in other words, no one is afraid to “break” the used cardboard, paper towel rolls, and pipe cleaners. Furthermore, designing a STEM program around  less expensive materials instead of the tech allows room for the teacher/student relationship to be the heart of what draws students to the projects. Just think about that for a minute. If I tell my students that I have a brand new drone for them to use, the next thought they’re likely to have is, “get out of my way, Mr. Hanson, and gimme that drone!”  And there’s nothing wrong with that – we should feel good to give our students those opportunities.

But there’s also something special about students being led by a teacher who can lead them to do something great without the need for shiny, expensive technology, teaching them resourcefulness along with problem-solving. All the while having greater access for all.

So, after having spent thousands of dollars on high-end video gear, I’ve seen my students do things that simply would have been impossible without that investment. But now, I want to use tools like 3Dux Design’s architecture sets to inspire my students to create their own cardboard arcades. I want to throw cardboard, paint, Christmas lights, and a boatload of 3Dux’s cardboard connectors at my students and see where their creativity takes them. Products like 3Dux make STEM more accessible.

With nothing more than the spare cardboard your school accumulates throughout the school year and $25 worth of 3Dux’s connectors, you can unleash hundreds of lessons on creativity, resourcefulness, problem-solving, engineering, applied math and science, entrepreneurship. You and your students’ imagination is the limit.

Add to these simple little cardboard connectors your other STEM stuff – LED light strips, Raspberry Pi’s, Arduino kits, LEGOs, K’nex, not to mention rubber bands, duct tape, paint, aluminum foil, fabric, bananas (looking at you, Makey Makey!) – and the 4 C’s of creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical-thinking suddenly become the heart of what your students are doing, rather than memorizing lists of predetermined tasks in sequential order. A lesson plan becomes, “fix my broken windmill with the material provided”, the learning objectives are the four C’s, and the materials list is literally unlimited – whatever our students can get their hands on.

Wanna snag one of these awesome kits?

Use this link or enter code “constructlearning” at checkout for 10% off your order.

And so we return to Caine, his arcade, and his genius. We reexamine the whole point of school, STEM education, and our role as educators. There are a lot of good reasons to get grants and purchase high-end gear for our students. But I would argue that there is a particularly beautiful phenomenon that happens when we reach the higher-order thinking goals we have for our students using far more resourceful tools. Just ask Caine. He taught me that when given the freedom to use the tools around him and when given total creative control, our students will surprise us with what they are capable of creating.

Now go watch that video again.

About the Author, Erick Hanson

Erick is a Media Specialist and Technology Coach in the East Pennsboro Area School District in Pennsyvlania. Prior to this role, he spent 12 years as a high school history teacher. Erick created EP Media, a student-led, competency-based, new media company, through which students learn video production, but also business, marketing, project management, fundraising, budgeting, and more. Erick holds a Masters of Arts in 21st Century Teaching and Learning from Wilkes University. 

Erick is also the co-host of the Greater Educator podcast.