As we design new school buildings, it’s important to explore new ideas and successful learning environments. We recently attended BostonAPP/Lab’s tour of the STEAM Lab at the Boston Arts Academy (BAA). The BAA and the director of the STEAM Lab, Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, PhD, support a culture of tinkering and creativity; it was exciting to see how their program works in concept, practice, and result.

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics, and BAA created a unique space “for students to play, think, and create across disciplinary boundaries while keeping art central to learning.” Under Dr. Gaskins’ leadership, BAA has already seen increased student expression, sharing, and collaboration with technology. Dr. Gaskins challenges her students to develop ‘creative coding’ skills to explore STEAM-based projects and to find “new uses for existing technologies and actively explore emergent ones.”

We saw a classroom with organized boxes of supplies, movable tables, chairs on wheels, dry erase paint, a large format production machine, tools hanging off the walls, and plenty of opportunity. What we did not see were lines of computers typically found in a technology classroom. As Dr. Gaskins put it: “we thought about the room in modules… and computers are put away until needed” to best encourage creative thinking. This nuanced approach to technology allows students to always see technology through the lens of art, and not just as something cool or new. Many of the projects the BAA students create have integrated art with motion sensors, conductive paint, music, and communication technology. The lab itself includes many examples of small technology computers such as the Arduino, Makey Makey, and Raspberry Pi, all for student use. BAA students first encounter the STEAM lab in 9th and 10th grade, with many continuing on beyond that.

Dr. Gaskins is an impressive teacher and an accomplished artist, and her ongoing research on how makerspaces—which she describes as “community centers with tools”—can be inclusive and welcoming places for those not typically part of hacker culture speaks directly to increasing diversity and inclusion in STEAM education. In the STEAM Lab, Dr. Gaskins uses examples such as rappers J Dilla and Grandmaster Flash as technology innovators to show her students that innovation and art go together. These examples resonate with her students. In line with Geneva Gay’s theory of Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) to “make learning more appropriate and effective” for a range of diverse students, Dr. Gaskins and the BAA STEAM Lab allow students to explore their own culture through technology and art. Her students create projects using electrical textiles, making 3D models, and developing special effects graphics. The work and play in the STEAM Lab has also extended into other arts-based curriculum students encounter at BAA—a true sign that the lab is promoting cross-disciplinary exploration.

The fact that Dr. Gaskins can inspire and empower her students to explore and play at an advanced level is a testament to her approach and commitment to teaching. She captures a spirit of inquiry and channels the right amount of teaching and knowledge to create a culture of learning. The STEAM Lab supports her efforts by providing a flexible, non-centric space that accommodates individual and collective effort. When high school students are encouraged to cross boundaries through education, it starts with the ability to be free and unencumbered in a space that supports this learning.

More about Dr. Gaskin’s teaching research can be found on her blog: Recontextualizing the Makerspace: Culturally Responsive Education

Topics: Technology, Institutional