By: Tom Liszka
As part of its NextUp initiative to interest teens in tech careers, in 2017, CompTIA partnered with the FUSE program at Northwestern University to expand and enrich STEAM learning for middle and high school students around the country.
WyEast Middle School in Hood River, OR, won a NextUp grant for a new FUSE Studio with CompTIA-funded tech activity. Their student population includes a large contingency of underserved, migrant minorities.
“FUSE brings a whole slew of opportunities to the kids at our school,” said Patrick Getchis, STEM teacher at WyEast. “I am a firm believer that kids learn best when they are given tangible opportunities to tinker, imagine, create and invent real things.”
FUSE is a STEAM (STEM plus Arts) education program that facilitates student exploration and learning through hands-on, interest-driven challenges inspired by real-world STEM and design practices. In FUSE, students work in a studio-like environment, learn through making, and develop 21st century skills such as problem solving, persistence and communication.
“I like how you can choose your own style of whatever you want to do,” said student Alyssa Martinez. “For me, building and creating something online and then seeing it in real life is awesome! You can open your creativity, and FUSE showed me that I really liked design to make things my own.”
In FUSE, teachers like Getchis act as facilitators, helping to guide the process of exploration and discovery by encouraging students to problem solve, take risks, try and try again, be creative and learn with and from their peers. Because students work on challenges in a different order and at different paces, they develop unique expertise that they share with their peers. Students become leaders, peer mentors and experts in various STEAM-related tools and practices.
“In a FUSE classroom, kids really are the experts and I’m the facilitator,” said Getchis. “I try to have them sit in pods, or so-called little think tanks, depending on what challenge they are working on. They come to me often, but more often, they collaborate with each other.”
Releasing that responsibility to the kids is invigorating, says Getchis, and he’s always tried to pursue that avenue even before FUSE.
“If we model that we’re learners too and we’re struggling, we’re going to look for every avenue to solve that issue, and the kids will see that and understand that information is attainable for them.”
Students in FUSE have access to a diverse suite of challenges. They choose who to work with and whether they work alone or collaboratively. This choice and interest-centered environment helps all students find challenges which inspire learning and engagement.
“My favorite thing about FUSE is that you can be creative with everything, and you get choices with what you can do,” said student Betzy Rodriguez. “You can explore new things with it!”
Once students get engaged, challenges “level up,” or become more difficult, requiring them to build on knowledge and skills from previous levels. For example, a challenge may start them off with a simple level one challenge where they have to do something basic, like learn a software. Then it gradually increases to make it more intricate in terms of design and process.
“As it gets harder, the kids are given more opportunities to be more creative as they learn more skills, and as they build those skill sets, it often leads down different worm holes for them to pursue deeper into their interests,” said Getchis. “It offers just enough structure for them to pick up skills but also leaves plenty of room for creativity, which is what I think is key behind the leveling system.”
The challenge intricacies sometimes lead to the “F word” that you’ll never hear around FUSE studios (no, not that one). The “F word” I’m referring to is failure. That’s because in FUSE, failure is just another try.
According to Getchis, whether or not a student completes a challenge is subjective. He offered his personal philosophy, saying, “If the kid is working to their potential and they don’t finish a challenge, that’s absolutely fine, and conversely, if another kid is really into a challenge, we should offer opportunities for them to pursue that challenge for an extended period of time.”
“Our students surprise themselves all the time,” added Getchis. “The tools and resources they have when they come into a studio, they do not have at home, and if they do, a small minority has access to those tools. They are proud of their projects.”