STEAM Train: Outdoor Tinkering Studio

Jul 17
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We all know that students love the investigative and experimental nature of Science and Technology. They value hands on experiences over all else. However, providing opportunities for such learning experiences is becoming harder as testing and data collection take hold in our schools. When you mention Science, kids think experiments and hands on learning, so I wanted to make this a prominent part of their STEAM experience at St Bernard’s Primary School Batehaven. I wanted to provide a place for serendipitous discoveries. A place where students feel free to explore, invent and play in a setting where teacher intervention is minimal, challenges are collaborative and student experts are identified by peers.

STEM Outdoor Tinkering Studio

As a big believer of constructivist learning, I wanted a space where children could imagine, tinker, explore, create, experiment, contemplate, play and share ideas. To achieve this end I designed and built, with the help of an eager crew of staff, parents, friends, local business and government departments, an Outdoor Tinkering Studio. The OTS, for short, is my STEAM classroom and is the place where experimenting with Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths and BIG ideas takes place. It is not only a dream space for tinkerers but it provides a link between STEAM and the environment, and I believe that it will help unleash the power and potential of our students to transform their world.

It is a place where technology and tinkering empowers me to become a co-learner with my students by building new experiences for exploration of content. This enhanced learning experience embodies John Dewey’s notion of students and teachers working side by side to become engineers of collaboration, designers of learning experiences, leaders, guides and catalysts of change.


Global Goals

The space is also designed to connect the students with the environment around them. Guided by the SAMR Model for integration of technology into teaching and learning, I hope that it will increase the use of digital technologies in the school and transform pedagogy, rather than just enhance established classroom practice by providing real world authentic challenges for students to solve. I am incorporating the United Nations Global Goals, which encourage students to create, innovate and advocate to solve real world problems in a socially responsible way, into all lessons.

To that end we have joined the iEARN global Classroom and are currently undertaking a project on Water Is Life which addresses global goals 6 and 14 which aims to ensure the availability of clean, healthy water for people and the environment. We also have started working on the Bebras Australia Computational Thinking Challenges on iPads in the OTS which seems to alleviate the stress associated with tests. (Hmm-Perhaps we could NAPLAN a try!)

Learning that flows out of the classroom

We already have a successful Makerspace and Code Club but it is this Outdoor Tinkering Studio which I hope will ignite the flame in all children, both during class and during breaks, so that the learning flows out of the classroom and continues in ways that the children shape. It is then that I believe true learning will take place.

The space is not completed yet but the groundwork has included gabion work benches for lizard houses, a skat and track mat sand pit and bush log seating. We are planning to install a frog pond, fire pit for seed germination, weather monitoring station, alternate energy devices, a music wall, tuned wind chimes, pendulum painting studio, Rube Goldburg Machines, Simple Automata Workshop, Outdoor Green Screen/ Chalkboard for the creation of iMovies, biodiversity study-infra red cameras, bird boxes, native bee houses, outdoor games such as Connect Four, Ker-Plunk and Boggle and a Creation Table filled with hammers, nails, wood offcuts and junk material.

So far this year every class has had a STEAM lesson in the Outdoor Tinkering Studio which has enabled them to discuss how the purpose of the space has influenced the design, and they have all been given opportunities to contribute and make modifications to the plan.


Experiences for each stage

I have used the EngQuest challenges to provide hands on experiences for each stage. We used the Construct a Water Wheel Challenge to prepare students for the Flour Engineering Challenge-Follow the Flow 2017, and we made our tiered water contraptions along the fence with run-off flowing back into the creek.

Code club students will use the skills used in the automated hydroponic garden to code water monitoring systems operated by the micro controllers Raspberry Pi and Arduino to maintain and assist with water monitoring of the creek and log data on various projects, such as Spring Bug Watch and Stream Watch.

Stage Two students are studying the topic Living World. They will utilise the new Outdoor Tinkering Space to help them understand the effect of their actions on the environment and on the survival of living things by observing the life cycle of various plants and animals and by participating in biodiversity studies which will include collecting and interpreting data.

In Year 4 there will be an emphasis on the life cycles of animals in the different Ocean Zones. Students will investigate marine debris and contribute their findings to the national database/monitoring system Australian Marine Debris Database Tangaroa.

Stage Three will be studying Built Environments with a particular focus on developing an understanding of the role of humanitarian engineers in helping to rebuild disaster-affected communities. To achieve this, students will work in teams to design and construct buildings, bridges or other infrastructure that will form part of a model of a rebuilt disaster-affected community. After reading the book Fire by Jackie French, they will use the Fire Pit to germinate native seeds. At the end of the project, students should be able to communicate how their model demonstrates the principles of safer and more sustainable living. After building their community students will set up their models in the OTS where they will program Sphero’s to enter the Fire Zone. They will design a vehicle that would be able to get into the community and then code it using the Tickle App to stop and check for people in need. We also plan to make a Robotics challenge for a Fire Zone.

The Built Environments unit will also focus on dams and reservoirs in the local area. They will use the OTS to study the catchment and will participate in a dam to tap excursion. To reinforce the concepts the students will complete the EngQuest which has them collaborating to construct a catchment.

All activities are structured to utilise a collaborative approach where opportunities for cooperative learning are provided, which is a significant aspect of engineering and scientific work.

Early results

Whilst it is early days, the results of installing this space have been heart-warming, as a steady stream of happy faces pour out of the Tinkering Studio each day. Prior to the OTS, student data at St Bernard’s had suggested that few students, particularly girls, were taking up STEM subjects. The results indicated that we had a large group of students who were not being challenged and were not developing the important 21st century skills of critical thinking and problem solving. Since the introduction of the Outdoor Tinkering Space, participation in the lunchtime STEM clubs has doubled and far more girls are involved.

The success of the STEAM program is due in part to having a passionate Learning Support Assistant assigned to every class, and I have to thank our Principal for placing the trust in the program to provide the funding for this extra support. This enables us to work simultaneously to probe the groups with questions that encourage contemplation and deep thinking, and frees us up to provide point of need advice, all of which stimulates inquiry and engages the students to participate in “hard fun which builds resilience and success”.

The catch cry for our program is “All aboard the STEAM train.” And the shrill cries of delight in Stage One when this is announced are deafening. Now the students call me Mrs STEAM Train and toot as they go by. Parents are thrilled that they are going home and talking about STEAM and all around the school students are saying that they love Science. This, I believe, is the greatest sign of success.

If you would like information about setting up an Outdoor Tinkering Studio or Makerspace please contact me via Twitter or email me at

Sallyann Burtenshaw will be speaking on ‘Implementing a Tinker Space’ at the Improving STEM Education conference in Melbourne this August. Book soon to secure early bird rates!

This article originally appeared in the Science Teachers Association’s Science Education News. 


Submitted by Sallyann Burtenshaw

Sallyann Burtenshaw

Sallyann Burtenshaw is STEM Co-ordinator at St Bernard’s Primary School.

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