Latino STEM Alliance exposes middle school-aged students to STEM programming through after school programs and extended learning time opportunities. Students work in small groups and are exposed to STEM through a hands-on, project based learning model. There is a summative competition/showcase event at the end of the year to highlight skills and student work. Latino STEM Alliance students solve open-ended engineering design problems with LEGO Mindstorm robots, allowing students to problem-solve, design and iterate their own solutions in a group setting. Students work together to present their own individual solutions to their peers to then validate, discuss and test ideas to develop a single solution to test out and then repeat until they are satisfied. They learn to communicate, actively listen, lead, follow each other, use program content and develop new solutions as they test their prototypes. They develop and apply hands-on engineering and programming skills from learned curriculum content, make observations and perform research when needed to design their own solutions.

Key Takeaways

  • Encouraging student creativity is all about redirecting creativity without discouraging it; they should be encouraged to try out new ideas even if one idea doesn’t work. Time is needed for youth to fully test an idea.

  • Small group environments where kids can get to know each other help to foster creative risk taking. Kids are more likely to volunteer a novel idea if they know they won’t be made fun of or criticized.

  • Students tend to reflect on overall outcomes, not individual mistakes. If the overall outcome of an activity is positive, students will view it positively.

What methods/language do you use to celebrate and encourage student creativity?

I think Latino STEM does a good job of giving opportunities to do some of the engineering design process. Like, prototyping, and then vetting their solutions. And I give kids chances to take feedback. I tell them the protocol: “When they give you feedback you need to listen and write down things that they say, and then improve on them.” So we went through a process of saying, “Here is our prototype, here is what we’re doing, and here is what we’re thinking about designing.” And the kids would give each other feedback on that, and talk about ways they thought they could improve it, so it was a really a roundtable-type discussion. Whether we got to the full prototype or not, we were just generating ideas. And we repeated the process of being able to share your idea, the other kids giving feedback, the whole team working on a concept, and somebody else seeing something you didn’t see. One person would have an idea, and then three other people who hadn’t thought of that idea would think of their own ideas around that.

I think that’s always a challenge, to have kids go in a creative way as much as you can, because you don’t want to do everything for them. You don’t want to create for them because that takes away the opportunity for them to learn and strive. So I’ll just give little tips or things that I was thinking of along the way, or ask questions along the way. Like, “Would this work well?” or “Oh, what do you think?” or “Could this be better?” 

What do you do to create an environment where students feel comfortable making mistakes?

My first year with Latino STEM I just invited everyone to do it, and I realized kids weren’t taking it very seriously. They would come or not come, not show up, be distracted most of the time, and mostly saw it as a fun time with friends. As a teacher, I can’t handle that. If I’m trying to teach people something, or get them to engage in really thoughtful things, I need to run it like a classroom. So right from the very beginning of this year, I treated it like a classroom where I set up rules and routines, and said, “This is what I expect. It’s a free program that’s really fun and interesting and I know you guys like it, but if you don’t want to treat it like a class, then you shouldn’t be here.” I think establishing rules and routines and procedures for kids talking, and sharing out ideas, is important. It’s about establishing a classroom presence.

Also, accepting all answers is key. When I was a student I took this class where anything was okay. Any idea. The teacher said, “That is a great thought,” or, “That is a great idea.” And I felt like through that process we shared more, because it wasn’t as if someone was holding out for the right answer. He made it seem like every answer was the right answer, or could be the right answer with some twists to it. So as I create lessons, or even as I’m implementing things, I’m cool with anything. Like, “Does anyone have other ideas?” I think as long as you can create a place where people can share any idea and not be judged on that idea, people play off of each other’s ideas. That’s one of my goals, that anyone can share anything. We’re all new to engineering, we all have different experiences with it. And we should all be open to this idea that anything could work.