Self-eSTEAM at St Mary’s School, Waverley

The rich, deep and cognitively challenging Self-eSTEAM programme at St Mary’s School, Waverley, is founded on project-based and inquiry-based learning. The programme, with discovery of self at its heart, offers a framework through which learners can pose meaningful questions about their own personal vision and mission and conduct sustained enquiries into a range of topics.

The programme enables learners to make thorough and reflective observations about local, national and global conditions, and to format action-driven questions based on these observations. Self-eSTEAM, which stands for ‘entrepreneurial mindset, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics’, enables learners to develop and enhance the skills they need to address the challenges and opportunities they themselves have identified.

It is a project-based learning methodology which exposes pupils to quintessential 21st century skills, offering a platform on which these skills can be applied to realistic modern-day challenges and opportunities. Self-eSTEAM encourages real-world learning and offers pupils the opportunity to expand their skills. The approach enables organic and authentic integration of content and skills across various subject areas.

Pupils work with experts from outside the school environment: they become involved in creating a physical product that shows their learning, and they present their thoughts and creations to a diverse and credible audience. Through this process they discover their own strengths and weaknesses, leading ultimately to the attainment of acute self-awareness.

It’s an evolution

St Mary’s School, Waverley, has been developing this alternative approach to education over the past six years because it is necessary to reflect, re evaluate and restructure what happens in the classroom. This is not only to integrate current technology and innovative teaching methods, but also to ensure that the learning has the potential to enable fundamental change in both teachers and students.

Too often schools revert to traditional modes of education and discard the ground-breaking work achieved by those willing to experiment. Encouraging students to become active participants in their own learning is part of the struggle. A powerful, genuine learning experience requires students to take the lead in their own education. Educators thus need to relinquish the age-old notion of being the keeper of all knowledge and should rather share in knowledge-making with their students.

A level of logistical coordination is required to ensure that project-based learning works. In the past, focus days within a cycle were dedicated to integrated learning, and outings and assessments could be arranged on those days. The current model means that the timetable is concentrated over a two week period in an effort to support deep engagement over consecutive days.

Over the past two years, students at the school have participated in various Self-eSTEAM projects based on different facets of STEAM. Science and technology are balanced with humanitarian-focused journeys, with most outcomes requiring that pupils either build prototypes or devise and present a performance piece.

Technology and learning

Author your own story

One of the very first of these projects was entitled: ‘In my life: your life is a story, author yours.’ The essential question each student was required to answer was: ‘How can I reflect my authentic self to allow other teenage girls to see their own value?’ The beauty of this project was that it required student choice and, ultimately, student voice: two vital components of project-based learning.

The choices ranged from fashion design to 3-D printing, to debating, to writing poetry. The students were challenged to reflect on the extent to which the mass media (including social media) influences and possibly even dictates their self-image and self-esteem – even though the content may be fake.

The various dimensions of the project needed to be drawn together in one cohesive performance piece that required the input of a director and technical crew. The learning here undeniably exceeds a simple exploration of the self. The higher order thinking that is required for the synthesis of ideas is a transferable skill that will benefit the students throughout their lives.

Designing an eco-friendly urban space

One of the more technical projects required the students to design sustainable, eco-friendly urban environments in which all people could live harmoniously. The use of both prototyping and coding were necessary for the final product. Students needed to ask and answer questions about a range of issues pertaining to sustainable living. Two such questions were:

  • What are the necessary elements for a successful selfsustainable urban development?
  • What is the role that each person plays in a family, relative to their age, occupation and the type of work that they do?
  • What was paramount in this project was that students developed empathy: a value that can be taught, but which is more challenging to apply. As a rule, students tend to neglect the economic parameters of less affluent families.

‘Hidden figures’

A project entitled ‘Hidden Figures’ was primarily a research project executed during lockdown. The inspiration for this particular project came from the 2016 film of the same title. This biographical drama follows the story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the early years of the US space programme.

Viewing the film was motivation for the essential question: ‘Can you research a woman who has made a significant contribution to society and with whom you are able to identify and emulate?’ The students’ biographical research, along with illustrations and embedded videos, was then shared on the school’s digital library platform to be enjoyed by everyone in the St Mary’s community.

This project proved to be a wonderful example of decolonising the curriculum, as the students chose to research women with whom they resonated and by whom they felt inspired. The global representation of dynamic and influential women was striking.

In Self-eSTEAM, the ‘E’ for ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ adds an interesting vigour to the projects. A narrow view may simply be to encourage students to ‘make money’ off a product. However, the school would rather encourage the growth of genuinely entrepreneurial thinking: whether or not students actually need to create businesses or non-profits to learn entrepreneurship is up for debate.

What is important, however, is for students to develop self-efficacy, an awareness of career options, an awareness of the necessity of risk-taking, the ability to recognise the value of iteration, and the ability to develop creative problem-solving skills.

Learners participating in Self-eSTEAM programmes

Our most recent project

We kicked off 2021 with an exciting Grade 9 project that focused on taking a stand against climate change. The project was inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to create a better future for society by eradicating major global problems such as climate change.

The students were asked to develop a campaign that created awareness and provided solutions to one major cause of climate change. In order to capture the girls’ attention and increase their awareness, we had a variety of guest speakers and subject-specific teachers involved who could address important topics, such as fast fashion, the scientific causes of climate change, and how to create a meaningful campaign using different media.

A major highlight of the project was participating in climate activist Greta Thunberg’s #Fridaysforthefuture anticlimate change strike action campaign. This was the first global strike to take place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it particularly special. The students created beautiful posters out of recycled materials and took to the streets around the school with enthusiasm, sticking up the posters for all to see.

In the spirit of Self-eSTEAM we joined up with St Stithians Girls’ College in an effort to create a sense of community and shared responsibility. Collaboration is an essential part of the programme and something that we hope to do more of in the future. The strike was a great success as it helped bring climate change awareness to passers-by and also fostered a sense of community and a sense of urgency amongst our students.

In the days that followed the strike, our students fully invested themselves in the project. They created videos, podcasts, and books – all in an effort to save the environment. The project was concluded with an inspiring exhibition outside the school hall. Teachers and pupils from other grades were invited to learn and be challenged by the work that the Grade 9s had created. The students worked exceptionally hard to make the exhibition interactive through the use of quizzes and visually-stimulating material. It was a celebration of hard work and also a very real warning to all of us as we try to save our planet.

This first project of 2021 was only the tip of the iceberg. We look forward to taking the issue of food security as linked to climate change further with the Grade 9s in the coming months. We also intend to explore other key topics, such as identifying influential women, both past and present, and weaving their stories through an understanding of human rights, enfranchisement and our national Constitution.

The projects continue to evolve and are only ever ‘nailed down’ at the final moment in order to allow for the dynamic interplay of ideas and innovation. It is exciting to see this process unfold as old, traditional teaching methods are challenged to make way for new ways of seeing and thinking about education.


Self-eSTEAM assessment is explicit, and allows the student to demonstrate or defend their learning. Traditionally, assessment would follow the curriculum, but Self-eSTEAMbased assessment gives rise to the curriculum. This ‘backwards design’ allows for the assessment of the full range of a student’s abilities as they relate to real-world challenges. Authentic assessment is intended to engage pupils and is built on content in which pupils have a genuine interest. Pupils are encouraged to synthesise information and use critical-thinking skills.

Ideally, the assessment is a learning experience in and of itself. It allows pupils to recognise their own progress, set goals and decide on the next course of action. Assessment tends to happen throughout the project, offering specific insight and opportunities for improvement.

Some examples used in the Self-eSTEAM projects include:

  • research and writing reports
  • character analysis
  • debates and discussions
  • creative drawing and writing
  • experiments/trial and error learning
  • journal entries
  • performances, and
  • exhibitions.

For future projects, we intend to explore the notion of a ‘portfolio defence’, which is a student’s curated portfolio of work, which exists as evidence of certain outcomes having been achieved.

Self-assessment is vital in Self-eSTEAM. Rather than attributing academic success to a teacher, students see it as a result of their own hard work. When students own the assessment process, they recognise their prior knowledge and the areas where they need improvement. Based on this they can put together a plan of action to achieve their goals.

Teacher-directed assessment remains an important component when judging a student’s mastery of the content, as well as maintaining one-on-one contact with the pupils. However, traditional methods of evaluation are not necessarily well-suited for interdisciplinary projects, as this process begins with the assumption that there may be more than one correct answer. When considering that much more than content is learned in Self-eSTEAM, the evaluation would need to acknowledge the level of collaboration and participation, as well as the presentation of ideas to an audience.

Art and project-based learning

Professional development

Teacher professional identity is a fundamental construct that encapsulates the practice, pedagogy and passion of the teaching profession collectively and individually. While shifts, such as those propagated by Self-eSTEAM, can unsettle the pedagogical status quo, they also offer new opportunities for teachers to re-imagine their own professional identities and craft new identities which both celebrate past practices and embrace innovations in teaching.

Through embracing programmes like Self-eSTEAM, the teachers at St Mary’s contribute to innovation within the immediate school environment and beyond. Such growth is imperative in ensuring the upward mobility of the teaching profession both locally and internationally.

Fundamental to the success of this type of work, is ensuring that teaching staff feel connected to the Self-eSTEAM vision, and that they feel valued. At St Mary’s, Waverley, all staff are welcome to join Self-eSTEAM meetings and share their expertise. While there is a core Self-eSTEAM group, other teachers are considered an integral part of the extended team in which wisdom, insight and expertise are shared. Additionally, all Grade 8 and Grade 9 teachers are encouraged to participate in the successful running of the projects and to work alongside students during the development of the projects.

This open-system approach ensures that it is not just the pupils that Self-eSTEAM develops into citizens who can navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but also the teaching staff, by further developing their skills in collaboration, creativity and communication. In light of this, Self-eSTEAM is a point of growth for all involved and a celebration of teaching and learning in which everyone is valued and appreciated for their wealth of knowledge and unique outlook.

The Self-eSTEAM team in and of itself continues to learn and grow. Each new project offers the opportunity to extend tried and tested approaches as well as to traverse uncharted educational territory. Each new cohort of students brings a unique understanding of the world and how they exist within it. Together one might imagine that this mode of learning is truly amorphous, yet there is a definitive structure and focus that the students move freely within. This style of learning cannot be overlooked or rejected.

Education has the potential to stagnate and in a world that is moving and changing so quickly, the responsibility lies within schools to best equip students. South African schools in particular, need to be embracing project-based learning or risk being left in the dust.