Teaching with Amazon Alexa

Alexa is a voice-activated, cloud-based virtual assistant, similar to Siri on Apple devices, or Google Assistant. Alexa is an umbrella name for the cloud-based functionality that responds to verbal commands. Alexa uses artificial intelligence to answer questions or control smart devices, and has a range of “skills” — small programs that you can add to increase Alexa’s capabilities.

Many teachers are experimenting with using smart devices like Alexa in the classroom. Like most other Amazon features and products, Alexa is primarily designed for home use, anticipating that users will be household members. So in thinking about Alexa in a classroom, keeping this in mind will help determine the best educational uses.

Alexa is most often accessed in three ways:

  • Smart speakers – Echo or Echo Dot devices are small stand-alone speakers that listen for Alexa commands and respond to your requests.
  • Smart displays – Echo Show and Echo Spot incorporate video displays.
  • Smart devices – Other devices such as Amazon’s Fire tablets or Fire TV allow you to use Alexa commands to control them.

Echo Line

The Echo was the first Alexa-enabled smart speaker from Amazon. Today, there are several versions of the Echo that you might consider, and Amazon continues to expand the options. All Echos offer the same Alexa voice capability, with most of the differences in the Echo lineup due to the quality of the speaker and the ability to control smart home devices. The better the speaker, the bigger the device and the higher the price tag. The Echo Dot, which is about the size of a hockey puck, and Echo Flex, which plugs into the wall, are the smallest, with speakers that are adequate, but are not going to impress with sound quality.

Echo (4th Generation)

The Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Studio all easily fit on a desk, and offer increasing sound quality at increasing prices. The Echo Plus and higher priced models add a built-in Zigbee controller, meaning you can control compatible smart home devices.

Alexa Smart Displays

The Echo Show line of devices add video capability to the baseline Alexa device.

These devices offer an easy way to do video calling, including Skype, and connect to other apps like Spotify, Amazon Photos, and more.

How Alexa works

When you say “Alexa” – your Alexa-powered device automatically starts listening to whatever is said next and starts recording. This recording is sent over the internet to Amazon servers which use Artificial Intelligence to understand what has been said. If the recorded message is understood, Alexa responds with information or performs the requested task. If it doesn’t understand, it will respond with something like, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” or “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”

The default setting is that these recordings are saved on Amazon servers. Amazon uses them to improve the AI and responsiveness of Alexa. You can access these recordings, delete them, or turn off the feature completely.

What can Alexa do?

Alexa has a number of basic capabilities without adding any skills, and many of these may be useful in the classroom.

  • Play music – You can set music to play, ask for specific songs, or play from a playlist. You can play background music, or even white noise.
  • Timers, alarms, and reminders – You can ask Alexa to set a countdown timer, or a recurring alarm for the same time every day. Reminders add voice, you can ask Alexa to remind you to feed the class hamster at the same time every day. These can be set in the app or by voice.
  • Random – Alexa can give you a random number between two numbers, or you can ask Alexa to roll a die (or even two dice), so it could be used for choosing students or as the dice for a game.
  • Quick math – Ask Alexa to solve problems without getting out a calculator or using the internet. Alexa can also do things like convert currency, tell you what time it will be in 24 minutes, and many other simple calculations.
  • Words – Alexa can spell out words, give definitions, synonyms and more. It is not perfect with homonyms, for example if you say, “Alexa, spell write” it will respond with R-I-G-H-T.
  • Fast facts – If you need to know the capital of Korea, you can simply ask Alexa, who not only knows the answer, but gives you the correct answer for both North and South Korea. It knows things like capitals, population, distances between cities, science facts, and can read Wikipedia entries out loud. Just say, “Alexa, wikipedia: topic
  • Weather, time zones – Alexa can tell you what the weather is anywhere in the world now or in the future, and tell you what time it is in most cities.
  • Fun and games – Alexa can tell jokes and has some funny built in responses if you ask things like, “Alexa, how are you today?”
  • Reading aloud – Alexa can read aloud books in your Kindle library, even if you haven’t purchased an audio version. It uses text to speech technology so the reading is somewhat mechanical, but it is free.
  • Volume control  – You can ask Alexa to turn the volume up or down, or stop whatever audio is playing.
  • Control smart home products – If you have the right devices, Alexa can control home automation products like smart lights and thermostats.


Alexa-enabled devices have a simple setup mode that starts when you plug them in. For most devices, you will need to download the Alexa app to complete the setup and connect your device to a wifi network. Follow the specific directions for your device and Alexa will announce that it is ready to listen to your commands. Devices that have displays will allow you to complete the setup without an app.

Alexa features are tied to one specific Amazon account. It will use this account for all shopping, purchases, location information, and more. Think carefully about the need to have a separate Amazon account for school vs. your own personal account.

If you are using Alexa in a classroom, one of the first things you should do is turn off the shopping capability of Alexa, called “Voice Purchasing.” Since Alexa is typically used in a home setting, one of the things it does best is allow you to purchase products through Amazon simply by asking it to. Voice Purchasing is enabled by default so this should be part of the initial setup you do, since this is something you don’t want happening in your classroom! 

Alexa App

The Alexa app is the control center for Alexa and Alexa devices. You can download it from your phone’s app store. All settings are accessible from the app, so you will want to explore those settings to make sure every Alexa device is configured properly. The app also allows you to perform almost all functions that the voice-activation commands allow, so if it’s easier for you to look at menus instead of talking to a device, you can use the app. It’s much easier to discover and enable new skills on the app.


There are two aspects of purchasing to consider:

Voice purchasing – You can turn off voice purchasing for products found on Amazon through the app settings. However, this still allows items to be added to your shopping cart. You can also control voice purchasing by setting a PIN code. This allows you to purchase items by saying a preset four digit code. This code will only be accepted from a voice that you have trained Alexa to recognize, which should prevent someone from simply overhearing your code and trying to buy things without you authorizing it.

In-skill purchases – Some skills offer enhancements that cost money. For example, the Disney story skill has a few free stories, but if you want more, they cost money. You can configure the “Kid Skill Purchasing” in the app settings. This will let you completely turn off purchases in Kid Skills, or you can set it to send a text or email to you to approve requested purchases.


Skills are added capabilities that enhance Alexa. There are thousands of skills in the Amazon Alexa Skill store, accessed on the app or via the Amazon website. Skills range from serious to silly, and while many are free, others cost money or have features that you can purchase. Some skills enhance the native capabilities of Alexa. For example, a basic Alexa capability is that it can set a timer or tell you the time, but there are skills you can enable that have more capabilities, such as a countdown timer that has the sound of a rocket blasting off at the end.

It is important to read the descriptions of skills and any reviews. Skills are created by external developers, just like phone apps, and their quality varies widely. If you don’t like a skill you’ve enabled, you can just disable it.

  • Quizzes – There are many quizzes, trivia games, spelling bee, or flashcard type of test skills.
  • Music & Podcasts – Alexa can play music from your Amazon Music Library, but many music providers and streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, and others allow you to tap into your existing music or podcast accounts. There are also speciality music sound skills like white noise or relaxing sounds.
  • News, weather, and radio – There are skills developed by a wide variety of news organizations that increase Alexa’s ability to read headlines or get weather alerts. Radio stations are also streaming through Alexa skills. Alexa allows you to define a “Flash Briefing” that will customize your news sources.
  • Stories – there are many skills that offer stories read out loud for kids, including interactive or “choose your own” stories, or stories that allow you to customize aspects such as inserting your own name into a story.

Check these carefully for inappropriate content warnings, some skills say they are for “Mature” audiences, but many have no information. Some say they have “dynamic content” which means that the developer can add content at any time. You also can’t search Amazon skills for these kinds of ratings which is not very useful.

Blueprints – Make your own Skills

Create your own skills with Blueprints. Use the Amazon Blueprint site or the Alexa app to make your own skills that can be accessed through any Alexa device, or even shared with others. To make a Blueprint, select one of the templates and start to customize it. For example if you wanted to make a skill that randomly chooses a student name, you would start with the “Whose Turn” template. This template could also be used for playing a game, or randomly choosing who has to take out the trash, or other choices. You can then add custom names to the template, add sound effects and custom responses, and then name your new Blueprint something like “Random Student Third Period.”

When you are done, Alexa will create a new skill that you can use on any of your devices. You can also publish it to the Alexa Skills Store, although if you use student names, you may not want to do that. You can use the “Share” button to share a link to your new skill with others.

If you are using FreeTime, you will have to go to the FreeTime settings in the app, or to the Parent Control panel online to share the new skill with a child’s profile.

Managing Kid-Friendly Alexa Features

Since Alexa is designed for home use, there are many features created with kids in mind. Some of these can be a little confusing because the features overlap, and there are multiple ways to access the settings. For example, there is a stand alone FreeTime app, but also a Parent Dashboard. You can turn off voice purchasing via the app settings, but FreeTime does it automatically. Once you get your device set up, you should be able to leave it alone.

Kid Skills

Kid skills are skills that have been identified by the developer as having been designed for  children under age 13. Kid skills require permission from a parent before they can be used. You’ll be asked to give permission the first time you attempt to use a kid skill. After you’ve given permission, you will receive a confirmation e-mail.

Now, just because a developer says that a skill is for children under 13, that doesn’t mean you will always agree. Check the skills in action to make sure they are appropriate for your students.

Kid skills may offer digital products for sale that can be accessed or used within the skill, such as additional stories or trivia questions. You can manage your voice purchasing settings for kid skills in your Alexa app. If you’ve turned off voice purchasing, no one will be able to purchase these skill add-ons.


FreeTime mode changes Alexa capabilities to be more aware that kids may be listening. You can set up FreeTime on most Echos and Fire tablets. When you enable FreeTime on Alexa, Alexa will play music or movies, answer questions, read stories, tell jokes, and more with younger ears in mind. It will block searches it deems inappropriate, and will not play music with explicit lyrics. Voice purchasing is automatically turned off and Alexa Communication is limited to only within the household or with contacts you select.

You can set up and manage FreeTime in the app settings, or the Amazon Parent Dashboard, which also allows parents to see their child’s FreeTime on Alexa activity, including which skills their child has used.

FreeTime works by adding a child profile to your Amazon account. Amazon accounts let you define a “household” with up to two adults, four child accounts, and four teen accounts, each with different settings. Things you can customize include the child’s age (to limit content with age ratings), limit time allowed on the device, limit the ability to make and receive calls, and more.

For a classroom, it will not be possible to have a profile for every student, so it is more practical to just create a single child account with a fake name. You can then add skills and set controls for that child account that are consistent with all classroom use. Be aware that a device either has FreeTime activated or not. You cannot switch between a child account and an adult account, so if you activate FreeTime, you may not be able to access some Alexa features. To go back to an adult account you will have to go into settings and turn FreeTime off.

There is also a paid version of FreeTime called FreeTime Unlimited, that gives the account free access to a lot of children’s content including books, movies, songs and more.


Anytime Alexa is used in a classroom, privacy of students should be a concern. These recordings of student voices raise questions about who can access them, and how they might be used in the future. There have been reports of some recordings being sent by email to contacts, and in some cases, police and government agencies have asked for recordings from phones and smart devices as part of an investigation.

Students have a reasonable right to privacy, and having an “always on” microphone should not only be something that you let parents know, but also students. As students become citizens, it is important that their rights are respected, and that they are informed when something is done to them that might infringe on their rights.

Voice recordings

To turn off voice recording, use the Alexa app and go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. From here, turn off the toggle switch that says “Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services to Develop New Features.”

Deleting voice recordings

This year, Amazon announced two new Alexa commands that will let you delete your voice transcripts by asking Alexa. Just say “Alexa, delete everything I said today” or “Alexa, delete what I just said.” 

If you prefer to delete your entire history, open the Alexa app and go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History > Delete All Recordings for All History.

Location privacy

Alexa uses the address associated with the connected Amazon account for location information. This affects how it responds to requests for local weather or news

A small school solution – Using Alexa devices in multiple classrooms as an intercom

If you are running a small school with a few classrooms, it is possible to set up Alexa devices to assist with classroom communication as if you had an intercom, in addition to utilizing voice commands. If you have Echo Dots in multiple rooms, you can use the Alexa app to either “Drop in” or “Announce” to one or more other devices.

  • Drop in enables a two-way communication between you and a specific device in another room. The other device can hear what you are saying, and you can hear anything going on in the other room.
  • Announce allows you to create a message, and then send it to all your Alexa devices. The other devices will chime and play your message.

Running multiple devices in different rooms gives every room access to the Alexa voice-activated features, plus they will share all products, skills, blueprints, and other custom features you create on your Amazon account.

The Future of Alexa

Amazon is incorporating Alexa into new products and will continue to do so. Even today, rings, eyeglasses, fitness trackers, earbuds, and more have Alexa capabilities. The possibilities for learning and for adding these devices to the everyday life of classrooms is something we will all be grappling with sooner rather than later!

New report – Long term potential of making and makerspaces for learning

Makerspaces for Education and Training: Exploring future implications for Europe

A new Science for Policy report from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service aims to provide evidence-based scientific support to the European policymaking process regarding making and makerspaces in education. (PDF download)

Yes, it says “Europe” and you may not be in Europe, but it’s likely there is something in this report that will support making and makerspaces in any organization world-wide. Around the world, educators are working to implement makerspaces as part of long-term strategy for educational change—not just as the latest fad that will be tossed out when the winds shift.

From the abstract:

“This report explores the long term potential that makerspaces and making activities can bring to education and training in Europe. Through developing four scenarios with an outlook to 2034, the report supports anticipatory thinking and helps policymakers, makers and educators to better envision and debate the added value that makerspaces and making activities can offer for education and training in Europe. The report outlines three unique aspects of makerspaces which make them appealing to education and training.

  • Firstly, making activities naturally combine disciplines that are traditionally taught separately
  • Secondly, while exploring real world problems individuals acquire new knowledge and create meaning from the experience
  • Thirdly, due to informal ways of social interaction in makerspaces, a diversity of flexible learning arrangements are created (e.g. peer learning and mentoring, peer coaching). “

While focused on European makerspaces and making in education, this report has some interesting ideas about how to frame the benefits of making in both formal and informal learning settings. One of the issues with incorporating making in education is understanding how different it is, for example, to have making as a separate class, making incorporated into other subjects, or making in drop-in or extra-curricular activities.

This is a useful, extensive report that covers a wide variety of these different forward-looking scenarios. The report also introduces “drivers of change” as a way to envision these possible futures that may be useful for many different organizations working towards a longer term vision of educational change. It also manages to include issues of equity and inclusion, plus the often overlooked aspect of community and culture that grow around makerspaces.

Future scenarios for makerspaces and making in 2034

Finally, it offers drivers for policy conversations. It nicely integrates some of the seemingly conflicting goals of many “maker” implementations—for example, how can a makerspace be both exploratory and compulsory? How can making be about personal goals and social innovation and building job skills?

This report is nicely balanced between research, policy, and excellent examples of real-world making experiences. It’s well worth reading!

Leveraging Emerging Trends to Produce Future-Ready Students (webinar)

A Q&A with FETC presenter Sylvia Martinez 

Originally appeared in District Administration magazine online

In this brief Q&A, Martinez shared insights on the key emerging trends in schools, thoughts on technologies like AR and AI, and classroom practices that are working best to leverage this tech. Read on for an introduction to some of the ideas you can expect to explore in her webinar and FETC session.

The recent advances in the area of physical computing make it something that can be introduced into classrooms in every grade level and subject area. Physical computing is the intersection of the digital world and the physical world. It incorporates things like robotics, but goes much further to include all kinds of things like wearable technology, understanding sensors, collecting and interpreting real world data, and more. Students who are interested in any subject, not just STEM subjects, can investigate physical computing projects that support their interests. New microcontrollers like the BBC micro:bit, combined with new easier to use software make building computer-enhanced inventions easier and more affordable than ever.

Allowing students to invent and be creative with technology does not mean that we favor technology above all other means of expression. We are simply adding tools to the creativity toolbox. If we believe, for example, that puppet shows are good (and they are), why shouldn’t the puppets have eyes that light up, or sensors that trigger sound effects, or have an AI module embedded in them? These opportunities invite all kinds of students to express themselves and make meaning in the world.

For technologies like AR, AI, adaptive computing, robotics,and other emerging tech, what is the key to making them relevant in education? In other words, how do we make sure they are enhancing learning instead of distracting from it?

New technology innovations will be adopted in one of two very different ways by schools. In some schools these innovations will be used to deliver old lessons with new bells and whistles. However, if new technologies possess educational “nutritional value,” it is incumbent upon us to find ways to use the new gizmos to expand what students can do. Using AI in a Scratch program you write, or building your own AR or VR simulation is enhancing learning. Using AI or VR to deliver a lesson, grade a quiz, or make a virtual frog pop out of a textbook is not.

The challenge is for schools to keep offering students real and relevant experiences and not fall back into ingrained habits. The focus needs to be on what students do, not what we do to students. Educators who have embraced technology can say “yes, and” to new things that are entrancing schools while keeping the focus on student-centered constructive creativity. 

What is one classroom practice you’ve observed that is working especially well to leverage emerging trends for the benefit of students?

Using students as tech leaders and mentors has enormous benefits in classrooms. One of the issues that educators face when introducing emerging technology into the classroom is the simple fact that there is a lot to learn, and it seems that technology changes so fast that there is never enough time! This may lead to procrastination hoping that someday it will all settle down and there will be time to figure it all out before introducing it to students. Unfortunately that day may never come.

Teaching students to become mentors for peers or near-peers offers tremendous benefits to all involved. Mentoring is a tried and true practice that helps both the mentors and the mentees. Students who are mentors learn confidence and become leaders in their schools. Teachers benefit from not having to be experts in everything, handing off responsibility to students. This also walks the talk of student empowerment and encourages the idea that invention and creativity come from everywhere and everyone in the school community.

Webinar archive

Sylvia Martinez’s sessions at FETC 2020

Wednesday January 15, 2020

W151$ | Disruptive Lenses for School Leaders: Making, Agile Development, Design Thinking
Room: Lincoln Road C
Wednesday, January 15, 2020: 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

C024 | PBL Gets a “Make” Over — Prompts and Assessment for Maker Classrooms
Room: 224-225
Wednesday, January 15, 2020: 1:00 PM – 1:40 PM

C065 | STEAM to the Future: The 4th Industrial Revolution is Here!
Room: Lincoln Road C
Wednesday, January 15, 2020: 3:20 PM – 4:00 PM

Thursday January 16, 2020

W205$ | Grow is the New Make: Bio-making and Bio-hacking
Room: 238-239
Thursday, January 16, 2020: 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

C150 | Making for All: Inclusive Maker Projects and Makerspaces
Room: 224-225
Thursday, January 16, 2020: 11:00 AM – 11:40 AM

C228 | Ethics, Empathy, and Educational Technology
Room: Lincoln Road C
Thursday, January 16, 2020: 2:00 PM – 2:40 PM

ISTE 2019 Sessions

ISTE 2019 will be June 23-26, 2019 in Philadelphia. Hope to see you there!

Accepted proposals

The case for creativity and design in STEAM

  • Scheduled:
    • Sunday, June 23, 1:30–2:30 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

STEAM to the Future: What’s Next in STEAM, Design, and Making 

  • Scheduled:
    • Monday, June 24, 1:30–2:30 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

We Have a Makerspace, Now What? Four Directions Forward for Leaders 

  • Scheduled:
    • Wednesday, June 26, 8:30–9:30 am EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

Panel Conversations

More Stupid Ideas in EdTech (and why you should totally do them) 

  • Scheduled:
    • Monday, June 24, 10:30–11:30 am EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

Waitlisted proposals

.Girls & STEAM: Equity, Inclusion, and Excellence

Declined proposals

What’s a microcontroller and why should I care?

Podcast: What’s the connection between learning and tinkering?

I had the pleasure of being a guest on the EdTech Bites Podcast with Gabriel Carrillo. 

We had a great conversation about learning, tinkering, “real work,” and other topics. This podcast is part of a series of podcasts leading up to FETC in Orlando Florida in January 2019.

Gabriel is having a contest for his podcast listeners to win a copy of the brand new second edition of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Listen and find out how!

I’ll be at FETC speaking about STEM, making, tinkering, a look ahead to what’s new in STEAM, and much more! (Join me with this discount code.)

Don’t miss a special book signing on the FETC exhibit hall floor – you can be one of the first to get the new edition of Invent to Learn! (See my FETC schedule here.)

Can’t wait? Buy the new edition now!

Making and ELL: Conversational Confidence

Making Culture Report thumbnail
Download full report from this site.

In a new study from Drexel University, researchers found that makerspaces help students learning English to feel more confident using their new language skills.

Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces, confirms something I’ve heard anecdotally from educators. Doing interesting things means that students talk about the interesting things they are doing.

Now there is a study confirming this (and more).

“In our research, we observed the potential of makerspaces to improve engagement with English language learners (ELL) and students facing disciplinary issues. First-generation English learners expressed greater agency and self-confidence from their experience in makerspaces. These students felt empowered to work on new language skills in the open and collaborative environment through conversations with their peers. Student interviewees suggested that working on creative problem-solving projects reduced the fear of making mistakes when speaking out loud, fostering greater fluency and retention:

  • ELL students referenced reduced anxiety with language around school activities based on collaboration in makerspaces.
  • ELL students referenced using technical manuals as part of their literacy development.
  • ELL students referenced using technical manuals as part of their literacy development.
  • ELL students expressed being more comfortable using their native language to problem solve or complete assignments in the makerspace than in other STEM settings.

 Teachers also frequently referenced specific changes in behavior in their ELL students from makerspace participation, leading them to believe that engagement had improved.”

Making Culture is the first in-depth examination of K-12 education makerspaces nationwide and was created as part of the ExCITe Center’s Learning Innovation initiative. This report reveals the significance of cultural aspects of making (student interests, real world relevance, and community collaboration) that enable learning. The research highlights how makerspaces foster a range of positive student learning outcomes, but also reflect some of the gaps in inclusion common in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields. The report was co-authored by Drexel School of Education researchers Dr. Kareem Edouard, Katelyn Alderfer, Professor Brian Smith and ExCITe Center Director Youngmoo Kim.

The Case for Creativity in STEAM

Creativity on display at FabLearn NL 2018

Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the key to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.

Adding more and different technology to the classroom toolkit invites students of different abilities and interests to experience STEAM subjects. This creates classroom conditions that invite technology understanding and creativity for all students, even those who think they “don’t like technology”.

In many cases, digital tools, electronics, and programming are seen as something only a few students (the “nerds”) want to try. Yet these are powerful learning opportunities that all students should engage in.

Key ideas

Design is a way to make thinking visible, connecting abstract pedagogy to the real experiences of children. The A in STEAM is not about decorating science projects or coloring math worksheets, but a way to add design and design’s cousin, aesthetics, into classroom projects.

Next Generation Science Standards provide new directions for engineering practices. Again, design is the key to this. Design is the process of engineering. It provides a framework to solve problems, using the science, math, and technology that students learn. These standards are not “business as usual” for schools. Looking at them as simply a rearrangement of existing curriculum ignores the revolutionary addition of engineering design to the expectations for science curriculum.

Formative assessment strategies that strengthen the project process in real time as students work through design and engineering projects.

Inclusivity that ensures that new technology and engineering experiences invite and support students who might not have the background or inclination to see themselves as engineers.

Equity in STEM areas for girls and other under-represented groups is not a matter of finding the young people who can do the work asked by the current curriculum, but to find new curricular areas and connections to the interesting and relevant STEM and STEAM opportunities found in the real world.

Everyone has a role to play

Leaders keep the vision alive in the face of multiple distractions. They allow new ideas to flourish and provide support for educators to work out the details, while still moving the ball forward.

Coaches help both the early adopters and the cautious “this too shall pass” reluctants to create a shared, achievable vision.

Teachers find ways to weave the old and new together in a coherent way for students. This means being a learner, leader, and a designer. There is no question that this in itself takes creativity. Teachers are asked to do more with less, and to make more time where there is none, all the time staying current with research and personalizing learning for every student. What could be more creative than that?

In the quest for STEAM, there will be tensions and questions. Can science be creative? Doesn’t math always have one right answer? Aren’t basic facts and rote memorization the ways that science has always been taught? Where will we find the time to do more in depth projects that give students creative opportunities? If students are doing more creative and personalized work, how will we assess it and meet learning objectives? Am I creative enough to make this work?

And yet, we know that students thrive when given the opportunity to do relevant, meaningful, and creative work. Together, we must push against paralyzing fear that there are too many variables and not enough time to figure it all out.

We have a ways to go

Creativity is often misunderstood as simply a personal attribute – you are a creative person or you aren’t.  Yet the word is crucial as schools struggle to implement STEAM programs that are defined only as subjects – not as mindsets. The “A” in STEAM is incredibly important – it is the verb of the sentence, and at its heart is the creative process. It is understood that artists have a creative process, but less well understood that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians do as well.

When schools work to understand what STEAM really means, there are certainly parts that seem easier than others. All schools have math and science classes. Technology is taken care of as we increasingly adopt computers into classroom practices. Engineering is a small but growing option in many schools.

However, we have work still to do. Science and math classes need to adopt modern ways that real scientists and mathematicians work. You can’t just put a sign up that says “STEAM Academy.” Students want and respond to science classes that are real and relevant, where they can engage in making things that make the world a better place, and in doing so, learn about the underlying laws of the world around them.

Technology is not only about computers, but about the basic human desire to change the world. Engineering is not just a college major, but a way for even young children to design and build things that help them make sense of the world.

When all of this is taken into consideration, you cannot help but notice that creativity, meaning literally to make things, is a key component. Design is the process of engineering and technology is the tool. Creativity is the mindset.

Recasting STEAM this way also invites more students who are not the “usual suspects” into the fantastic world of STEAM.