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Program Spotlight: STEAM

Chartwell’s STEAM program is renowned for its innovative, engaging approach to learning. In an interview with STEAM Director Topher Mueller, he shares more about this project-based Grades 1-8 program that incorporates multiple disciplines and highlights creativity and innovation.  

What is STEAM?

First I’d address the A in the acronym, and we can’t do that without first defining the evolution of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in

academia. Many schools and organizations have advertised STEM programs. Neither the concept nor acronym are novel; in fact SMET was introduced in 2001 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) while recognizing the importance of integrating these disciplines in school curricula, and a biologist in NSF (thankfully) rearranged the letters. One can observe STEM happening in K-12 classrooms and after-school programs, college, and even the workforce across the globe. It presents in a wild variety of formats, as there is no official standard to how STEM is accomplished (though the National Science Teachers Association, NSTA, offers modern standards that we reference for guidance). 

Girl doing a a project

At Chartwell, it presents as a curriculum or activities with a strong emphasis on content and skills integrated across those disciplines. If a teacher creates real-world and modern activities and challenges in the sciences, there are natural threads weaved between them with different learning paths for students to explore - and stepping stones where they can learn something new or build on what they know in other curricula. Making these connections, and offering those unique and differentiated learning paths, are important and bring learning to life. 

The A in STEAM represents the inclusion and importance of arts and creativity into the above equations. We acknowledge the importance of usability and aesthetics while we design, iterate and put the final touches on our creations. For example, we can’t design an effective rocket without marveling in its symmetry and graceful, aerodynamic curves, and bring attention to it with a focus on aesthetics and storytelling (and a really cool paint job). Just look at the many facets of NASA’s long history. 

Chartwell places a lot of emphasis on STEAM - why is this way of learning so important for our learners?

The adoption of STEAM at Chartwell directly reflects our philosophy of addressing both stretches and strengths in our students - and our commitment to offering unique and modern teaching methodologies for our equally unique learners. Every parent that comes to Chartwell knows that their child is bright and very interested in any or all of the subjects in the STEAM acronym. And the numbers don’t lie; in our students’ diagnostics, we find they often excel in spatial reasoning, problem-solving, and much more - all with a strong creative drive that’s often been stifled in the past. So it makes sense because the areas of innovation and creativity are where they already feel capable. Our goal is to celebrate and develop those strengths with the students, all the while building upon the stretches they are developing in their other classes and to help prepare them for the rigors of STEAM disciplines in high school and college.

What kind of projects do you find most interesting for students?

Boy jumping in air to launch rocket

One particular project comes to mind: Last year our senior middle school homerooms were led through a series of activities inspired by Brain Awareness

Week. These two weeks looked and felt like a truncated version of what the students experience in Chartwell High School’s project periods. Each day for two periods, they investigated the overarching question of “How can we better understand our brains?” through multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory activities. This included a formal partner dissection of a sheep’s brain, an art activity to visually demonstrate consciousness and cognition, a fun “mind games” activity to investigate the psychology of illusions, and a custom presentation by Mr. Swift and Mrs. Amaditz of their Teacher Training Institute. After several learning artifacts and activities led by several Chartwell faculty, students were left feeling empowered and empathetic after a holistic examination of their fascinating brains.

I personally advocate for projects that involve agency and potentially leave a sort of legacy. For example, middle grade students are creating websites about the local flora and fauna in our ecosystem. These sites will be accessible via signs with QR codes around our property and will lead visitors that wander our trails and campus to these students’ websites, even well after the authors have graduated. This reflects authentic assessment because the students are creating the website to inform and teach others about how special our property is and why we should respect it. 

STEAM happens with individual projects, too: We have alumna Kellen Lott’s seismograph in Building 200 that continues to faithfully report how the earth moves around us. Kellen came to a Computer Science class bewildered and not knowing how the subject applied to her - then carried out this senior project to completion and beyond. All of these projects reflect the philosophy of STEAM at Chartwell.

What does a great day in the STEAM program look like?

Many things would come out of a great day - a successful launch, or an ‘epic failure’ that resulted in new inventions or iterations instead of bad feelings. Or, a mistake or misstep in teaming that results in lessons learned, because working in teams is hard. Building confidence is always an underlying melody in our projects. Personally, I feel most rewarded by leading students through something they never thought they could do, or empower them with a tool or strategy that seemed wildly unapproachable.

Chartwell also has a strong robotics program - can you share more about this?

FIRST is another acronym - and stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Developed by inventor Dean Kamen in ‘89, it developed into mainly a robotics program for K-12 students across the globe. I’ve coached and mentored various levels and teams within FIRST for well over a decade because I feel it’s such a perfect opportunity for any student to learn how to actively work as a team in a setting focused on STEAM. The team line Sports for the Mind fits well, as some students may find competitive robotics more approachable than athletics. Right now we have both Explore and Challenge programs for K-8 students and have partnered with a community team, Plus Ultra, for students in our high school.

What’s next for STEAM at Chartwell?

I would like to see our digital arts program continue to grow. This is an area that Chartwell has always excelled in and deserves more investment, giving tools and strategies for students to share their work, imagination, voices - in many ways. Just recently we used funds from a grant for 12 iPad Pros for high school digital arts, so we’re well on our way. Mr. Santos leverages technology heavily in his music program, and we have both a photograph class and elective using DSLRs. All adding even more value to what Patti Kirshner has developed in Chartwell’s amazing arts programs over 35 years.

I feel that, like our athletics programs, that our STEAM-related extracurricular activities, including competitive ones, will continue to grow. We have many centers of excellence around us to partner with - schools and colleges, organizations, museums, research centers, businesses, and a talented parent and alumni pool. Through those partnerships, we can grow our STEAM programs at an equal pace to our well-established literacy and SEL programs, which are the foundations of our school. Exciting times ahead.