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Podcast: The Challenges of Teaching STEAM Programs

Podcast featuring Dr. Kandis Boyd WyattFaculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Holly Leskovics, STEAM Director and Educator

While the educational value of STEAM programs is widely recognized, the lack of curriculum standardization makes it especially difficult for those teaching STEAM. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to STEAM teacher Holly Leskovics about the immense research and work she has done to develop STEAM curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade. Learn about resources to help teachers stay up-to-date with changing technology, how to retrain kids that failing is an important part of learning, and why STEAM programs must be widely integrated in all grade levels.

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Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the Exploring STEM podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to explore the evolving world of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is important because our world depends on it. The economy, our general wellbeing, and our future, it’s all defined by a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math. As STEM continues to evolve, this podcast will connect new innovations, insights, and provide inspiration by those men and women in our community who are champions of these important issues.

Today, we are chatting with Holly Leskovics. She is a dynamic and engaging STEAM director. She has over 10 years of teaching experience. She has a proven ability to conceptualize, to develop, and she’s launched a first-class STEAM program from scratch. She has a demonstrated capability to work with different forms of technology and also to integrate it into the classroom, developing meaningful learning experiences and lasting life skills. So Holly, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Holly Leskovics: Hi Kandis. Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: The pleasure is all mine. So let’s get started, because there are so many critical conversations happening today that address issues surrounding science, technology, engineering, or math, or should I say STEAM programs, when we incorporate that A. So can you start by telling us a little about yourself and why this topic is so dear to your heart?

Start a degree in the School of STEM at American Public University.

Holly Leskovics: Absolutely. I’ll tell you, I never dreamed I would be in this position to start a program nor be a STEM/STEAM teacher, but I went to college to be a journalism major at SMU, and then I found myself subbing for some of the schools when I came back to Georgia and loving the classroom. So I went back and got my master’s to teach, and I taught high school English for several years in the public school system and I loved it, but I sidetracked a little to have three kids and I just did part-time work while I had the kids. I was doing part-time Spanish at a local private school that needed a Spanish teacher. And I will never forget when I said, “I’m ready to go full-time again. The kids are at the age that I want to go full-time again.”

My principal at the time said, “Well, there’s this new buzzword in education. There’s always a new buzzword in education, but this one is STEM.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know what that stands for.” And she said, “Science, technology, engineering, and math. And we would love to start a program.” And I said, “Great, I’m passionate about startups. I would love to.” I said, “So where do I find the curriculum? If we’re not sure what this is?” And she goes, “Oh no, there is no curriculum.” And I said, “Great, okay. So does that mean I just pick out of the blue? How do I even start?” And she goes, “Well, we’re going to start you slow. So we just want you to do fifth grade this year, see how it goes. See what the reaction is from the parents, from the children. And my suggestion is maybe just look up some conferences.” So that’s exactly what I did.

And I started at Georgia Tech because it was close and they had a lot of pertinent conferences that summer. But I remember feeling so much better, I was so nervous to do the first one, but I felt so much better after I went to that first conference at Georgia Tech. It was a STEM program for a week.

And the very first day there were educators from all over the state and they were asking the same question, “Our administration wants us to start a STEM program and we don’t know what that looks like.” So I felt not quite as lost and I just took the initiative to start looking into it.

Once I went to a conference, I would look at the vendors. I know that sounds crazy. But the vendors I met, I loved, because not only is STEM new, but so many of the products that STEM teachers use are startups and they’re brand new too. And so you are able to talk to these people and really get feedback for the different things that you’re using in your classroom. And it was amazing because they’re constantly evolving as fast as this curriculum is evolving. So it was exciting.

And so you feel like you’re on this roller coaster as you’re creating this curriculum. And here at my school, it was a huge success. And so much that every year we have added a grade level. So now I do kindergarten through fifth and I can’t imagine our school without this program now.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. That is amazing. So you just talked about a couple of the challenges that you’ve encountered, like a lack of curriculum, but were there any other challenges you encountered when teaching STEAM programs to youth?

Holly Leskovics: Oh, yes. There’s two different avenues of struggles that I have incurred, and still do. One is the administrative side as far as the technology. As I said, it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving. And so nothing is static. Nothing stays the same in STEM programs. My robots are constantly being updated. So software that worked on an iPad last year, no longer works this year.

So you have to stay on top of everything, which is a time consuming part of the job. You really have to have initiative because you can’t just let things be. You can’t teach the same thing every year. That’s what I said, I’m constantly changing the curriculum based on what’s the newest, what’s the latest, and what’s the best. And in some areas that doesn’t change quite so often. In mine it does, as well as the actual technology and programs themselves.

So I remember the first time I saw a 3D printer. I’m like, “What do I do with that?” And so learning so much about all of the things you use. And I think that’s not just for me. I went around training people in the state on these VR computers, they were called VisiTech.

And what I noticed was I always felt that it was money, resources were the problem. But these schools had plenty of products, they just were overwhelmed and didn’t know how to start using them. And it is a little overwhelming. I remember every time I would get a new product having to realize, how does it connect? How does the programming work? Because every program is slightly different and there are so many different products in the market that you do have to really do a lot of research.

And then there’s the kids themselves. It’s interesting because I have three of my own and so I know the different types of students you have. And my oldest is more your typical book memorization smart student. And what I have found is a lot of those kids, that’s all they’ve known because that’s what school has mostly been. Until now. Because that’s not the way a STEM class works. There’s not always an exact right answer or an exact wrong answer. There’s not always just one answer.

And I say this over and over and over, and I sound like a broken record, but they laugh because it’s so true. We fail a lot when we’re 3D printing projects, we’re doing one right now for the make:able challenge. And they said, we would have at least eight to nine prototypes. And they’re like, “We’re going to have to print an eight to nine times?” I said, “Probably if we’re really getting an accurate for our person. We’re going to have to keep modifying it with every step.”

And so getting the idea of failure as a good thing across to some of these students has been a bit of a challenge because they think that it’s a bad word. It’s a four letter word to say fail. So, that’s been really challenging too.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I can totally relate to what you just said because I think so many times we think failure is fatal, and failure just propels you forward but just in a different direction. So I love the fact that you’re trying to instill that very important concept to your students. So for our listeners, let’s just take a moment to distinguish between STEM and STEAM. So how do you communicate the connection between STEM and STEAM programs?

Holly Leskovics: Well, it’s interesting because we started ours as a STEM program and then two years ago, my administration came to me and said, “We would really like you to change your program to STEAM.” And of course I continue to go to conferences and I had heard that the A for art was being added. And I said, “Well, to me, no problem, because we’re already doing that.”

So I don’t feel like I really changed my curriculum, I only changed the name, because when you look at each of these things individually, when my kids are drawing prints, before they design on Tinkercad. Well, that’s art. I remember one of the kids said that one of them was drawing several wheelchairs over and over and over because she was showing how each step of the way they were going to change their product on the wheelchair. And somebody came by and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you were such an artist.” And I said, “So you see right there, even though there’s scribbles of math and measurement all over it, she really is an artist.”

And that’s true with all of it. When we’re building robots with circuits, when we’re doing our medieval castles and we wire them up with photo resistors, there’s still an aspect of art and building and all of it. So again, I don’t think I changed anything in my curriculum to change it from STEM to STEAM. I just think it was adding something that was already there.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah. That’s a good point. The “A” was already there from the beginning in one way or another. So let’s talk about the classroom now. At American Public University, we try to connect research with reality and theory with tactics. So how do you bridge that connection? How do you connect basic academic practices and theories taught in the classroom with STEAM programs that you’re trying to show the world to your kids?

Holly Leskovics: Well that’s my favorite part, because I always tell people and they laugh that I did not love school growing up and they can’t believe it because I love it here so much that I’m here on the weekends. And my kids especially, “You didn’t like school growing up?” I said, “No, but had I had a class like this, I would have loved it.” I always said, when am I going to use this math? What am I going to use that?

And so I really work hard to make sure that my kids do not ask that question. That they do see the connection between what they’re doing. So I work with all of my teachers here. For instance, my science teacher last year for fifth grade, they study cells. And so I said, “Okay, well let’s do something together.” So we designed cells on the 3D printer and then we put them up in a local Christmas tree festival and we said, “Fifth grade goes cellular.”

So they were getting to study what each of these parts of the cell were, but then also coming in and having to design those and print them, which just took it a little further, as well as math. You can’t do anything in our class. They build so much in my classroom, but third grade, one of their big projects, it was based on Caine’s arcade. I love him. And he’s so inspirational for many of us STEM teachers.

And so my third graders every year at the end of the year, build their own arcade game. And then we set it up in the lunch room and the whole school comes and walks through and plays their arcade games. But I think about how they do that. You can’t do any of that without measurement. They’ve learned the difference between so many things that are applicable in real life.

My fifth graders run a market every year and they have so much math involved. I make them buy all of their supplies and then they have to deduct how much their supplies costs based on their product and how many products they sell and how much they make and what’s the revenue. Things they’ve never thought of.

I always laugh because they’re so excited to do this. “Yay. I get to make a product,” and then they start it. And they’re like, “This is a lot of work. This is a lot of math, Miss Holly. I thought this was STEM class.” I said, “Well, what do you think the M stands for?” So I think sometimes they forget that they’re learning and that’s really the beauty of it.

I remember one of my little ones told me one time about the robots, he was coding. He told his mom, he goes, “Yeah, I go to STEAM every day and I just have fun. I’m not sure I’m learning anything.” And I thought that’s magical because I can promise you, his mom probably couldn’t do what he was doing.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: What training would be needed to make the public more aware of the importance of STEAM programs?

Holly Leskovics: That’s an interesting question because I do wish there was a bigger awareness of it. And I was so excited one day, I was driving down the highway and I saw this huge billboard that said “Women in STEAM” and I thought, “Wow, that’s awesome.” And it said here’s what to Google.

So I went to the website and it was great talking about powerful women in STEM fields. But I thought that’s interesting and that shows people what happens when you leave empowered by the knowledge of a STEM class that you can grow up to be this, but that wasn’t actually about the STEM and the school systems right now, which is where I think we need to be focused.

I think that community events is a huge thing. I try to do stuff. In the community last year I ran on Halloween night, I just went out into the community, set up a table and did small little circuits and light up things with kids, just small little tiny bits of STEM program to get them involved in understanding why it’s important.

And I would love to see more teachers together that we could come together. As you said, there is no curriculum, so we are all out there on our own. But if we could have a community of ourselves, I think we could together promote that awareness in the public.

As well as, I do a lot of things with the community and my kids do these things with the community. And I think that’s huge too, because then they say, “Oh, well, how did you know about us?” Well, for instance, the fifth grade market. We always do it with a local home here and the kids come here and they have STEM day. They don’t have all the resources at their place and so they come here and my kids pretend they’re the teachers and they show them a STEM day because I do centers and stuff and it’s such a blast. And then it’s just that awareness of what’s out there, what’s available. And that’s how I would go.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, I like what you said about community engagement and just trying to make more people aware. So does every person possess the skills to create and execute STEAM programs?

Holly Leskovics: I’ve thought a lot about that and I’ll tell you, I think the right person has to have a drive. I don’t think everybody can. And I’m not just saying that. I truly believe there are some people who are passionate about their job, but there’s a difference in passion and an initiative. You have to be a huge risk taker. You have to jump out and jump in 100%. Nobody’s going to tell you—this goes back to the curriculum—nobody’s going to hand it to you and you be a good teacher.

I don’t think a good teacher needs to be able to write curriculum. So I think there are many wonderful, fabulous teachers who could not be STEM teachers, because the difference is they’re not being handed that curriculum. And then they just need to use their gift of teaching. They’re having to create and initiate and always be on the up and up constantly.

Every year I go to ISTE, it’s the International Society for Technology and Education. And I learn so much. And I can’t imagine if you didn’t go to things like that and constantly learn what is new and what’s evolving.

And I think about all the hours I spend here at school printing things, because when you only have so many printers and you have hundreds of kids, it takes time. So if you’re willing to give of yourself and willing to give of your personal time and that’s what you are passionate about and you love it and you’ve realized the importance and the value. I just think creating a STEM program is more than an 8 to 3 job.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah. I definitely agree with you. Both of my parents were teachers in the public school system and I can’t tell you how many times they brought work home with them. So I definitely resonate with that statement.

So you mentioned earlier in the podcast that the buzz word was STEM, and now the buzzword is STEAM. So how do you ensure STEAM programs become a long-term way to promote science, technology, engineering, arts, and math?

Holly Leskovics: Well, my dream is that STEM programs are looked at across the board, public school, private school, as something that they’re going to start young and I would love to see them all the way from the elementary the preschools all the way to seniors and this continuity between them.

Because I think what will happen is, these programs will promote the STEM as the kids evolve. If they stick with a curriculum, they can only grow. And so by the time they get up to seniors and they are making choices for college, the STEM program that they’ve been through, to me, it’s huge. And so naturally people will start promoting the STEM because they’ll see the difference in the quality of the student coming out. It’s just different.

I can already tell that with my children, some of the things I did with my first class back in 2015, they were fifth graders then. They’re now sophomores. I have now had to bring down to third or second grade level, because once you start learning, it becomes easier and easier to understand logic, to understand coding. And so I’m hoping that that’s what happens is as these STEAM programs grow, it’s going to promote STEM because we’re going to realize the difference it truly makes.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. I really love that connection that you’re saying it has to be a lifelong process, not just one year or one activity, but starting in the pre-K environment and working all the way up through elementary, middle, and even high school. So do you have a personal goal when it comes to the future of STEAM?

Holly Leskovics: I do. I dream all the time. I can’t even sleep at night. I keep notebooks next to my bed with endless list. I would love to go train teachers. I’ve had several teachers come and observe my classroom. They’re just like, “Wow, this is so helpful.”

But I remember being there and being lost and not understanding where to start. And I would love to be able to take that knowledge to these people and take out so much of the time that I spent searching and just give this to them. And also, like I said, I envision that whether it’s my school or any school, that there is this program that is designed so that the kids do have some consistency.

As I said, I dream that teachers who have been trained and who have been given some resources, and not just the resources but the knowledge of how to work those resources, which is the big, big, big thing, that they will be able to do these programs. And they will be able to get into the community and they will evolve as they grow older. And these programs will make a difference in every single aspect of these kids’ lives, whether it’s their SAT scores or it’s what they choose to do for a living, what they choose to grow up to be. And that it’ll have that kind of an impact if teachers are trained and given the resources and the knowledge to do it, and then asked to put that consistency from young to older ages.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That’s awesome. You mentioned resources. So I want to close with that thought. What are some resources you recommend to help individuals learn more about STEAM programs?

Holly Leskovics: I did mention it earlier, but any educator who is interested in it, ISTE. I’ve met so many creators there. That’s what’s so cool. The people who started Makey Makey and Dash and Dot and all these names we know. Sphero and the big robots that lots of schools use as their program. The people who created those are there and you get to meet them. Osmo, the small company, you get to meet these people and it’s amazing to see how they’re developing it as fast as they can and changing it, also based on the kids and constantly adding more to give them as they master these other things.

And I think also just going out and constantly staying up-to-date with different companies that you know are great companies. I love Autodesk, they have Tinkercad and Fusion 360, but they’re always offering things. That’s how I found the make:able challenge.

They joined with Fusion 360, and Tinkercad are joining with Printlab. And so they’re trying to create these programs and these challenges for students so that they do blend the community, real-world problems with what’s going on in their classroom. And so I think if you can get on any of those type places in the blogs, then you can stay up-to-date.

And constantly just seeing whatever products you like. If you’re constantly looking on their website to see what’s new, they always have new things. And they’re always sending you to new links so that you can read about what’s the latest and the greatest. And it really helps to have that community that you can see what is going on, because finding the resources as I said, can change from year to year.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Holly, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective on STEAM. And thank you today for joining me for this episode of Exploring STEM.

Holly Leskovics: Absolutely. It’s near and dear to my heart, so I’m so glad that I had someone to tell about, and I do think it’s one of those confusing topics and I’m thrilled there’s a podcast talking more about this really important subject.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Well thank you, because you’re shaping the future of our future leaders. So I really appreciate all that you do both in and outside of the classroom. And so also thank you to our listeners for joining us. As a reminder, you can learn more about these topics by signing up for the American Public University’s bi-monthly newsletter. So until our next podcast, be well and be safe.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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