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Building ESTEAM at Somerset College

The idea to group science, technology, engineering and mathematics together in a focused way in school curricula, and to refer to them as STEM subjects, first occurred in the US in the 1990s.

It was not long before this approach expanded to include the arts and the acronym shifted to STEAM. Somerset College in the Western Cape has taken STEAM a step further by incorporating entrepreneurship as an essential and complementary skill that children need in order to thrive in the future. Thus the approach adopted by the school has become ESTEAM. The ESTEAM innovation building completed in February this year, is the embodiment of this approach, and a symbol of the school’s ambitious commitment to prepare our students for life in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

How the ESTEAM complex came to be

The story of the ESTEAM Centre from conception to fruition bears a brief retelling. After the school’s previous executive head, Meg Fargher, visited schools in the United Kingdom and returned convinced of the need for a space for cross-curricular engineering and construction projects at Somerset College, a shed for this purpose was conceptualised. As discussions within the school at staff- and at board-level ensued, and nascent ideas around introducing STEM to the school developed into the more well-defined ESTEAM approach, a synchronous event occurred. Fargher and Nicky Newton-King (current chairperson of the Somerset College board) attended a heads’ and governors’ conference hosted by ISASA at which London- based, award-winning architect Michal Cohen delivered an inspirational speech on the topic of school design.
The meeting of minds which followed was soon formalised as the Somerset College board appointed Cohen to design a cutting-edge innovation building complete with coding and robotics rooms, innovation and solution spaces, a makerspace, a reflection space, a physics laboratory and art rooms, as well as office spaces for educators and various social or small-group breakaway spaces. The end product is a centre where teachers and learners will be limited only by their own imaginations.

A culture of collaborative enquiry

The ESTEAM Centre was explicitly designed as a transformational and aspirational space. It is envisaged that relationships between and among teachers and students, as well as the curriculum and method of delivery will all change significantly. The design of the spaces within the building unequivocally encourages a culture of collaborative enquiry and interdependence which values the uniqueness of individual contribution in the creation of original solutions or products through group work. Writable glass boards as well as moveable, reconfigurable desks with write-on wipe-off surfaces and adjustable seating, all suggest a different, more active and collaborative requirement of teaching and learning.

Computerised boards in classrooms and banks of laptops enable not just consumption but the creation of material, connection and collaboration with others within and outside the school.
Teams of staff work together with groups of students in a manner that exemplifies the shift from the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ to being the ‘guide on the side’. Students will be motivated by choosing to investigate a real life problem or opportunity, and producing a meaningful product for an authentic audience. They will understand that for most questions worth asking, there are no clear answers, that the facts are only the facts until they change, and that sometimes asking the correct questions is the answer. In short, they will become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and will develop the skills to navigate that landscape.

Contemplation as important as collaboration and aspiration

The design of the building encourages staff and students to reflect individually and together on their teaching and learning as part of their own development. In the reflection space, learners are encouraged to remain silent and to forgo the use of technological devices while using the room.
The furniture in the reflection space features pod chairs that promote seclusion and introspection by limiting sound and partially blocking one’s view of others. Upholstered bench-like pieces of furniture allow for reading, journaling or sketching, either in a semi-reclining position, or seated upright and leaning one’s book on the upholstered arm. The reflection space provides a much-needed oasis of calm necessary for learners to ‘unplug’ and find the time and space to process their thoughts and experiences in the midst of their busy school day and demanding academic classes.
Aspiration is one of the values of the college. Students are encouraged to aspire to succeed, not in the narrow sense where winning is defined by someone else losing, but in such a way that pursuing their own success will also create opportunities for others. The sheer scale of the building, in particular the triple volume space that runs the length of the building, creates a sense of new possibilities and abundance. This area was designed as a prototyping space for the purpose of flying drones, launching bottle rockets, releasing model parachutes and so forth, but it also creates a sense of a shifting global culture in which innumerable potential exists.

Looking outwards

The openness of the building and the way it has been positioned on the site in order to maximise the beautiful views of the physical surroundings, sparks creativity and encourages students and teachers to look outwards for solutions. The openness stimulates the organic cross-pollination of ideas, as well as promoting the value of the process in any task or project. Additionally, it allows a celebration of the work of the individual, and importantly of the team, through the openness of the internal space and the multiple exhibition spaces. In this way the extensive use of glass in the space has a metaphorical relevance.
The conceptualisation of the innovation centre as an outward-looking space extends to the school’s imperative to form mutually beneficial relationships with the broader community and to share the privilege and opportunity the centre brings. Shared professional development opportunities will bring Somerset College staff and staff from surrounding schools together, so that they can grow, form relationships, share their experiences and develop projects to bring their respective students into collaboration. Community partners have been invited to utilise the building for their own teaching, learning and seminars when it is not otherwise in use. Students from surrounding communities, and further afield, will engage with our learners in student conferences and through social engagements where it is hoped that learners will develop a deep and abiding appreciation for difference, and learn truly to value other perspectives.

A sustainable structure

The design of the building further enhances its function on all levels in a few different ways. The building is not a ‘precious’ building. By contrast, it is a building in which many of the inner workings are exposed and visible to all who use it. This provides learners and teachers with a clear view of the product and processes of the specialist consultants involved in its construction. The work of experts in both electrical and structural engineering, green energy solutions, safety requirements and acoustic design surrounds our teams of
staff and learners. That the design of the ESTEAM building adheres to green energy requirements is an especially important specification as we seek actively to uphold and enhance the international eco-status of the college, and to model sustainability to the community, the next generation and generations to come.

Entrepreneurship: Creating something of value

Set close to the entrance of the school, the innovation centre reframes the identity of the institution as a 21st century thinking community. The innovation centre’s proximity on campus to the library (also soon to face a significant upGrade) has enabled the formation of a central academic spine of the school around which a learning commons is developing. With ESTEAM curricula already running from Grade 000 to Grade 11 for all students within the school day, this area is a hub of activity. It is envisaged that the collaboration and communication skills learned here, as well as the development of empathy, will be translated into all areas of our students’ lives and will remain with them as they venture out into the world.
Entrepreneurship, much needed in South Africa and in the rest of the world, is a central focus of the ESTEAM curriculum. Entrepreneurship is more than just starting a business instead of seeking employment from others. It is the ability to recognise or imagine opportunity, create something of value where nothing existed previously and to take calculated risks in order to create prosperity. In time, the centre will house a business incubator, but the focus will remain firmly in the social entrepreneurship space. This will see students using the skills of empathy, analysis and imagination to identify that which is useful or transformative in the lives of others. Therefore young entrepreneurs will not focus solely on market or profit, but importantly, they will
focus their efforts on bringing about social upliftment.

A model for transformative learning and diverse thinking

Somerset College has taken a bold step which will propel the school firmly into the second half of the 21st century. The ESTEAM approach and the innovation centre are about creativity, connection, design thinking, diversity and more. In short, the centre is a futuristic innovation space in all that this entails. As a concept and as a building, it will achieve much in terms of delivering on key values and competencies essential in order to thrive in a world of exponential change and uncertainty, but also seemingly limitless opportunity. ESTEAM is a model for transformative learning and diverse thinking, and the ESTEAM Centre offers the physical and metaphorical space to release these possibilities.

Clare Searle is deputy head: Academics & innovation at Somerset College.
1. See: why-we-love-it

Category: Winter 2019

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