Sticking with STEAM

Programs, True Confessions

I don’t know if the kids in your community are into duct tape programs, or if you’ve been doing it for years and they’re kind of over it. Where I work, duct tape is kind of A Big Deal, and has become one of my most highly attended monthly programs. I started to see the potential a few months ago when we were making wallets, a perennial favorite, repeated again by popular demand. I provided instructions and samples and helped out as needed. I noticed one middle-school girl was making hers rather larger than the prototype, and I felt slightly bad for her and her over-sized wallet that would never fit in a pocket. Then she took a long piece of a contrasting color, folded it up and affixed it to the other piece — she had made a cute cross-body purse. I was impressed, as were her peers. This sparked something in the other kids, who increasingly try to make new things or modify the simple project I introduce each month.

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Here at Robot Test Kitchen, we’ve been open about learning about learning from our problems and even embracing them. I’m at a point where I keep my eyes open for problems and run toward them because they create learning opportunities and keep things so interesting. Duct tape is so perfect in this regard. It sticks to your hands, it sticks to the table, it sticks to itself, and I’ve seen it get stuck in hair.

But it is forgiving! Is your project turning out too short or too small? Just add some duct tape. Is it bigger than you’d planned? Cut it with scissors. Has it stuck to itself and everything else and now it’s a mangled sticky ball? Toss it and start over; it’s just duct tape. We have lots more!

Most importantly, making things out of this challenging but forgiving material lets me ask the questions I really want to ask. One quote from The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard that always stuck with me is, “If you can´t tell me what you’d like to be happening, you don’t have a problem yet. You’re just complaining. A problem only exists if there is a difference between what is actually happening and what you desire to be happening.” I’m not suggesting anyone say that to a middle-schooler, but we can guide them toward a mindset of productive problem-solving. When someone shows me their shapeless project and says, “It’s so ugly!” I can say, “How would you like it to look different?” When I get asked how to make something completely new and different, I can ask, “What do you think the pieces would look like? How would they go together?” I can even grab the prototype and say, “Let’s take this apart and see how it’s put together.”

Working with a duct tape is the perfect metaphor for so much of the STEAM programming we’ve been doing. Unsurprisingly, it’s not about the duct tape or anything we make from it. Our young patrons are not just building wallets or bow ties (which are very cool), they’re building community and building confidence and developing problem-solving skills. Even when we’re not talking about new kinds of programming (hi, robots!), we can still talk about new ways of approaching our roles, especially in guiding rather than instructing.

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