“When you meet kids where they are and tap into their natural curiosity, STEAM subjects can be approachable, intuitive and fun” With Penny Bauder & Esben Staerk Joergensen

The more schools increase STEAM curriculum and hands-on learning within the school day, the more girls will build confidence in these areas. It’s never too early or too late to develop these skills. When you meet kids where they are and tap into their natural curiosity, STEAM subjects can be approachable, intuitive and fun. I […]

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The more schools increase STEAM curriculum and hands-on learning within the school day, the more girls will build confidence in these areas. It’s never too early or too late to develop these skills. When you meet kids where they are and tap into their natural curiosity, STEAM subjects can be approachable, intuitive and fun.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Esben Staerk Joergensen, President of LEGO Education. Esben is responsible for the overall leadership at LEGO education, a division of The LEGO Group, based in Billund, Denmark. He’s been at LEGO for 15 years, working on various management and marketing positions, and bringing a wealth of experience from international business in Japan, Sweden, and China.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Early in my career, I realized it was important to be part of an organization that makes a positive difference in the world. As a company, culture and product, LEGO lives its mission every day, inspiring and developing the builders of tomorrow. I jumped at the opportunity to become part of the LEGO Education family to help fulfill this mission in classrooms around the world.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re excited to bring our newest product, LEGO Education SPIKE Prime, to teachers and middle school students around the world at the start of 2020. SPIKE Prime is a whole new way of bringing STEAM into the classroom and is designed to help students build their confidence to try new things. It blends the physical and digital, making learning easy and fun for both students and teachers. With SPIKE Prime, students learn 21st century skills like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking with the LEGO bricks they love, along with an intelligent Hub, a variety of sensors and motors and an app with lessons that inspire kids to solve relatable challenges. With fewer than 1 in 5 students worldwide saying they’re very confident in STEAM subjects, we need solutions like SPIKE Prime to challenge and engage students at every level while teaching them the valuable STEAM skills they need.

Can you briefly share with our readers why LEGO Education is an authority in the education field?

LEGO Education has been delivering STEAM learning solutions for teachers and students for nearly 40 years. In 1998 we created one of the first products that combined physical and digital learning when we announced LEGO MINDSTORMS. This was revolutionary at the time because most classrooms didn’t have a hands-on way to teach kids about technology and engineering — in fact it would be another three years before the term ‘STEM’ was even coined!

From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

There are many rankings available, but ultimately there is no such thing as a perfect education system anywhere in the world that you could copy and paste anywhere and expect the exact same results. There are pros and cons to any system, but what we can hold ourselves to is whether students are learning the skills they need to be successful in life — and even that will constantly be changing. Continually wanting to improve and reevaluate how and what we teach children will always be something I support.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great? Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

The value and importance of STEAM education continues to grow, and we’re seeing more and more teachers, administrators and policy makers embrace and implement STEAM initiatives. Schools and districts are designing their own innovative programs, and then we’re seeing things like the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) at the state level and the Federal Government’s five-year strategic plan to reach all Americans. Looking at computer science in particular, there’s been a groundswell of support for funding and curriculum standards to ensure that all students get access.

Another opportunity is within early education, which lays the foundation for a love of learning and is a critical time to teach early literacy, social skills and even beginning STEAM concepts. At this stage, the goal is to stimulate children’s curiosity to explore together and learn through play. Taking a holistic approach here helps build cognitive and language development​ and school readiness while letting kids be kids and use their imagination to create and problem solve.

I believe learning needs to be viewed as a lifelong journey, and all of the changes to the workforce will also impact those currently in the workforce. According to the World Economic Forum, AI will displace 75 million jobs by 2022, but it will create almost twice as many for those with the right skills. It becomes imperative then to reskill the workforce and prepare them to keep pace as a result of digitalization and automation.

With so many companies jumping into the Education technology market, there’s never been more options available to educators to choose from, but at the same time, having so many choices can pose its own challenges. Even with the best intentions, EdTech products are not a quick fix, and choosing which ones to bring into the classroom should be done so thoughtfully and strategically. Before making an investment, products should be evaluated on their ease of use and ease of integration, support for implementation either through resources or PD, and scalability and sustainability. With limited time and resources, it’s important to utilize both for products that will have the greatest impact in helping teachers achieve learning outcomes.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

STEM implementation and integration in schools is gaining traction and the overall STEM market is growing. There is interest in and demand for STEM and STEAM learning from parents, policy makers and even future employers to help students develop STEAM skills for the future. With most students eventually going in to jobs that don’t even exist, the need for these skills is only growing. As such, STEM is moving beyond robotic and afterschool clubs and is becoming mainstream.

Some of the potential ways to build on this momentum and bring STEAM learning to more students include:

1. Hands-on learning: Research shows us that hands-on learning is the #1 way teachers and parents believe their students can build confidence in STEAM subjects. Yet, only 40% of teachers say their students usually or always get substantial time during the school day for hands-on lessons. 41% go so far as to say that hands-on learning isn’t typical at schools, citing lack of time and resources. This represents an incredible opportunity to increase engagement through hands-on learning.

2. Teacher tools: Before we can expect students to be engaged, we must first equip teachers with everything they need to successfully teach STEAM. It’s not enough to say “go teach STEAM,” which is why LEGO Education developed 400+ comprehensive lesson plans that are free for any teacher to access and align to HeadStart and NAEYC guidelines for early learning and NGSS and Common Core State Standards for primary and secondary. These tools help teachers feel confident in their ability to teach STEAM skills, whether they’re experts themselves already or new to teaching STEAM.

3. Meaningful failure: STEAM subjects can be seen as intimidating and hard, and students are often nervous to try new things and will avoid subjects where they’ve failed before. Adding to that is the mounting pressure to be perfect. We need to do our part to redefine what failure means and recognize its role in the learning process. Students need to be given the opportunity to try, fail and then try again. Hands-on learning helps create a safe place for trial and error where students become more confident and resilient. From resilience comes a readiness to tackle whatever the future holds.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

According to WEF, 65% of children entering kindergarten will do jobs that don’t currently exist. Studies also show that most jobs will require STEAM skills. We’re in a moment of incredible change and innovation and we must do everything we can to prepare all children for the future workforce with the 21st century skills they need to be successful.

Our classrooms are filled with students of every gender, race, ability and background who will grow up, think bigger and make the world better. They’ll solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, from environmental issues to medical breakthroughs. A student learning the principles of a coding language now could become an astronaut, a self-driving car mechanic or a smart home designer.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Being open to having these conversations is an important step and shows change is not only possible, but also happening. It’s our collective responsibility to recognize when there’s a disparity and come together to reach as many students as possible.

The more schools increase STEAM curriculum and hands-on learning within the school day, the more girls will build confidence in these areas. It’s never too early or too late to develop these skills. When you meet kids where they are and tap into their natural curiosity, STEAM subjects can be approachable, intuitive and fun.

We work hard to make sure all our learning solutions are designed to be inclusive and connect with girls and boys by tying back to real-world scenarios. Middle school is when we often see girls becoming less interested in STEAM subjects, which is why for SPIKE Prime everything from the size of the bricks to the number of components to the colors we used was all thoughtfully designed to inspire kids who aren’t necessarily STEAM enthusiasts to try, test and build their confidence.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

We can’t know what the future holds, especially when it comes to technology and how fast things evolve. What we do know is that learning concepts of a coding language are important, but to truly be prepared for the future, it’s just as important for students to learn resilience, collaboration and critical thinking. Lessons, and any coordinating EdTech solutions, should be cross-curricular, meaning each should be versatile and span subjects, from science and math to social studies and beyond.

Teachers tell us they have the most success incorporating coding and engineering into their classes when it’s tied to core curriculum such as language arts. With limited time and resources, taking the approach of “and” rather than “or” gives teachers the flexibility to accomplish multiple learning outcomes in the same class period.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

If I could change one thing about the education system anywhere in the world it would be to increase the amount of time students spend with hands-on learning. Research shows that retention, confidence and student engagement all increase with hands-on learning. We recently did a study with Harris to understand the state of hands-on learning and its impact on learning outcomes. Over two-thirds of US students agree that hands-on experience helps them master a STEAM subject, yet only half of US teachers say their students “usually” or “always” get substantial time with hands-on lessons.

One recent example that stands out is the San Diego Unified School District, which reinvented the way STEAM is taught starting in PreK. Accessibility to all learners is part of their strategy in starting this initiative so early. In its pilot year, 44 of the 119 elementary schools in the district have committed to being STEAM schools. This means students get one hour of STEAM instruction at least four days a week.

Another powerful example is Montour Elementary School, which opened the world’s first Brick Makerspace last year. The learner-centered space gives its K-4 students opportunities to design, make, and think creatively, while offering teachers the freedom to use the space how and when they choose. Educators from around the world visit the makerspace to hear how the innovative team took an idea and created an inspiring space complete with Animation Studio, Library, Test Track, Architecture, Engineering and Collaborative Building Center stations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” — Astrid Lindgren in ‘Pippi Longstocking’

We all intuitively understand confidence is critical for success. After all, how can you succeed if you already start something thinking you’ll fail, especially in the classroom. We want our children and students to be confident in the learning opportunities they encounter. And that’s what this Pippi Longstocking quote embodies. I hope to see her confidence in her ability to learn, even things she’s never done before, in every child and adult.

I’m fortunate to work for an organization where taking risks through trial and error is treated as the norm. Even when we encounter challenges — and we do! — we believe that with resilience, creativity and teamwork we’ll be able to accomplish new and hard things, even if we’ve never done it before.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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