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  • Adèle and Daithí

Promoting STEAM in Porto – Eclipsing STEM

Dr Daithí Kearney, STEAM time

What have natural disasters, electronic invention kits, vertical farming, and song writing got in common? Confused? Throw into the mix the exploits of British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Addington and one Albert Einstein and you might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow or two. Yet, the former were the themes under which students from third-level colleges from Norway, Belgium, and Ireland conducted a series of workshops that opened an audience’s eyes and ears to the wonderful world of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) in Porto, Portugal and we were delighted to be a part of it.

Arriving in Porto, we had an opportunity to engage (again) with the geographical science of the city with its challenging slopes and warm weather, the engineering of the region with the magnificent bridges, the artistry of the beautiful tiles and architecture guided by the technology of Google Maps and the mathematics of time and distance. It is a century since Sir Arthur Eddington ventured to Principe Island where his observations of a solar eclipse helped prove Einstein’s theory of relativity and this week we continued our journey to change established practice in education by placing an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to education that valued and brought together rather than divided all elements of STEAM.

We were hosted in Porto by Luisa Caiano from Curso de Música Silva Monteiro, a music school that has been to the fore in developing STEAM education in Portugal and a regular participant in the Global Science Opera. Like many of our colleagues around the world, Luisa has become a good friend whose help, and that of her colleagues in recent weeks has been greatly appreciated. Indeed we were greeted at the airport by André Ramos who welcomed us to the city and provided invaluable assistance.

As with many of our Intensive Programmes, our formal programme began with a series of ice-breaker and creativity exercises led by our colleague Luc Celis from Belgium. This was followed by a very informative lecture from Brazilian astronomer Gustavo Rojas of NUCLIO. He explained the phenomenon of eclipses, highlighting different types of eclipse and the science and mathematics behind them. He then explained some physics to us, drawing attention to the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Then he turned to the focus of our project, the observations that took place 100 years ago as part of an expedition led by Arthur Eddington, including the story of the expedition, which departed from Liverpool on 8 March 1919, arriving on Principe Island, then a Portuguese colony, exactly one month later. Like Eddington, we now travel the world in search of answers and experiences, building on the knowledge of others and seeking to share our discoveries with others.

After lunch at the Seminario de Vilar, we went to the Planetarium, where the science of space was brought to life in artistic and creative ways, providing further inspiration for our project. After the Planetarium, we experienced a workshop on the Physics of Music at the Casa de Musica facilitated by our Portoguese colleague Oscar Rodrigues and his colleague Inez, which ended in an improvised performance. After, we had the guided tour of the Casa de Musica, exploring the science of the different spaces and experiencing how the building engages with the city.

On Wednesday, it was the students who took the lead on many of the activities. Firstly, they reviewed a selection of the STEAM recipes that have been developed over the course of the project and submitted to the Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle. Then each national group led a STEAM workshop – each presented quite different ideas in somewhat different ways but all were engaging and enriching. After lunch, now divided into their transnational groups, they took these ideas and, inspired by the experience of their beautiful surroundings, they developed a set of workshops to take to three primary schools in the city.

Opening proceedings at the student-led workshops were the Norwegian team who introduced the concepts of natural disasters through the medium of interpretative storytelling. The Belgians followed with an interactive workshop that focused on the use of the Makey Makey, an invention kit that introduces young adults to the concept of coding, connectivity, and creativity. They followed this up with insights into vertical farming, an emerging concept of producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers, surfaces and structures including skyscrapers, warehouses, and shipping containers. Closing proceedings were the Irish contingent who quite literally got the audience off their feet with an energetic and enthusiastic song writing workshop with lyrics, rhythm, and melody steeped in STEAM, to the fore.

Later in the day the students continued working, now in transnational teams, to develop new workshops that they then facilitated in three local schools on Thursday. Visiting Santa Maria, Infante D. Henrique and Joao de Deus, the students engaged with themes that included climate change, sound and space, and the relationship between the earth and the moon. Later, the students had an opportunity to reflect upon and share their experiences of engaging with the children in Porto. They then had an opportunity to briefly engage with the ‘Write a Science Opera’ methodology linked to the Global Science Opera led by our colleagues from the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.

Some elements of learning were not part of the formal programme and we were very fortunate to be welcomed back to Porto Guitarra early in the week where Adèle and Daithí had a wonderful session last year (see 'Musical Migrations in March'). Agostinho Tico Rodrigues demonstrated a wide range of Portuguese string instruments and their influence on other cultures such as Hawaii and Brazil. We had an opportunity to admire the aesthetics of instrument construction and explore the varying tunings of the instruments and choice of strings. Later in the week Tico welcomed us back for a jam session in the shop, when we had the opportunity to play on some of his instruments. He also provided instruments for a performance at the conference at the weekend and welcomed us back for a session with local musicians who performed some Portuguese folk music for us. We also had the opportunity to catch up with our good friend, Fado singer Patricia Costa, who has recently released a new album. Time didn't allow for us to attend a performance this time but we promise to return.

On Friday, the focus turned to preparing for the weekend conference. The student teams prepared a number of presentations based on the STEAM Recipes developed over the past three years and stored on the Digital Repository. The breadth of potential was demonstrated in their choice of mathematical (Fibonacci sequence), geographical science (the water cycle) and physics (light).

The conference opened on Saturday morning with a welcome from our host, Luisa Caiano from the Curso de Musica Silva Monteiro. This was followed by two keynotes engaging with the Global Science Opera and the role of STEAM in preparing for space exploration. Janne Robberstad spoke of creativity as a collaborative effort, exemplified in the Global Science Opera. As well as the main GSO entitled ‘Gravity’, this year there will also be a mini-GSO in May with the theme, like our event in Porto, based on the discoveries of Sir Arthur Eddington on Principé Island, which provided proof for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Joanna Carvahlo joined us from the European Space Agency and highlighted some of the projects that she is currently engaged with, along with our colleague Bernard Foing who had welcomed us to ESA ESTEC in Holland (see 'Experiencing SPACE in Holland'). ESTEC have also been involved in the Global Science Opera, including Moon Village in which Dundalk Institute of Technology also participated.

After the keynotes, we presented the first of our intellectual outputs from the SPACE project. The Neptune App has been developed from an initial concept proposed at Dundalk Institute of Technology in 2016, through development phases with students in Norway and Portugal to realisation here at the conference. DkIT lecturer Dr Ronan Lynch, student Conor Walsh and graduate Michael Waters were part of the presentation team who introduced the delegates, mostly Portuguese teachers, to the app. You can find the app on the project website at

After the coffee break, Geert Marin from Artesis Plantijn Hogeschool Anterwerpen gave an overview of the SPACE project, making reference to some of the other collaborative projects we have been involved in including International STEAM week and other Erasmus+ projects, as well as our visit to ESA ESTEC in 2017. He outlined some of the focus which included encouraging greater interest in STEM through the use of Arts, developing learning processes in STEM fields and enriching classrooms. It is envisaged that, as per the title of the programme, all of the participants will become agents of change in education and bring their learning to a wider audience, beginning with the conference. Geert also encouraged all students involved in the programme to continue to innovate and take risks in their teaching.

Irma Smegen, from the company Speel je Wijs, provided insights into the Write-A-Science-Opera (WASO) methodology, which resonated well with the earlier keynote. As part of the SPACE project, Irma has worked alongside WASO-founder Oded Ben-Horin and the SPACE team to develop a guidebook for teachers, which is now available for others who wish to implement these approaches to learning in their own classrooms. As part of her presentation she introduced the conference delegates to a warm up exercise with all participants playing their piano. It is hoped that the guidebook will provide an introduction for teachers to the STEAM philosophy and the guidebook has already been translated into a number of languages.

Andreia Sousa from CMSM presented the Pedagogical Framework for the project. Andreia drew initial inspiration from the Portuguese writer José de Almada Negreiros who wrote ‘The Arts are behind Science and Science is the corollary of Arts’. Using a pyramid to highlight the relationship of creativity, dialogic nature and innovation, Andreia placed emphasis on problem solving in education, which is fundamental in our approach. The Pedagogical Framework has underpinned the SPACE programme and we hope that it will continue to provide an inspiring philosophy as we bring our developments to the attention of a wider audience.

After lunch, our students took over, presenting elements from their recipes in a manner that excited those in attendance. The first group drew inspiration from the Fibonacci sequence and demonstrated how understanding could be developed but also utilised in creative ways, showing in one exercise the development of polyrhythms. The second group demonstrated the water-cycle utilising drama. The third group of students sought to develop classroom ideas on light reminded us of Allan Bloom’s statement that “Education is the Movement from Darkness to Light”.

The student presentations were complemented by presentations on other Portuguese STEAM projects that included colleagues from NUCLIO, Casa da Música and Conservatório de Músicado Poto. The first was from astronomer Nuno Gomes, who highlighted the visual nature of astronomy, which has inspired many people from all cultures, fittingly including Newgrange in his presentation. Oscar Rodrigues introduced the delegates to his app ‘0+1=Sound’, which could be used for teaching beats and rests and introducing melodies to accompany the rhythms. Conference host Luisa Caiano provided an overview of four of the Global Science Opera’s that Curso de Música Silveiro Monteiro have been involved in, while José Manuel Pinheiro highlighted another Erasmus+ project that is also developing STEAM recipes.

After the coffee break, a roundtable discussion chaired by Dr Daithí Kearney of Dundalk Institute of Technology traced some of the processes, successes and future directions of the SPACE project. Michael Waters, a graduate of the BA (Hons) Applied Music programme at DkIT who is now working with Junior Einsteins highlighted how his experience with SPACE inspired him to teach and how he has brought his experiences of the project into his work. Similarly Laura, a teacher education graduate from Artesis Plantijn Hogeschool in Antwerp told of how she is influencing other teachers in her school to adopt a STEAM approach. Ben, a music student at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences is now doing his undergraduate dissertation on STEAM and spoke of how involvement in SPACE inspired him in his research. Conor, a music student at DkIT with a particular interest in music technology spoke of how he has facilitated workshops with children in Dundalk that have borrowed approaches from the SPACE project. Sophie, a teacher education graduate from AP, spoke about how working with international colleagues opened up her mind to new ideas, perspectives and approaches. A number of the discussants highlighted the importance of internationalisation and the challenge of working through and beyond language.

The SPACE project has had undoubted impact on all of the partners. Pascale Mast, a lecturer in Engineering, Construction and Technology at AP detailed how involvement in the SPACE project has accelerated change in her university with STEAM modules now core component of the courses on which she teaches. Tamara, a teacher education student on one of these courses, spoke of how she became introduced to STEAM during the International STEAM week at AP and has been inspired by her experience of the Intensive Programme in Porto.

The panel also took questions from the floor using slido technology and these were ably dealt with by each of the respondents. Queries asked about how change could be initiated, which is a key action for the special agents of change in education that the participants of SPACE are. Conference delegates wondered how the SPACE programme could be rolled out further to become a global initiative and how to get the balance between the Arts and STEM in the classroom. The delegates concluded with their perspectives on working as part of an international team before a short video made by Pedro Caiano of the activities during the week in Porto. During the video, three of the music students from DkIT played some Irish traditional music.

The conference concluded with an evaluation session that was made all the more engaging by Rhian Hutching’s excellent facilitation. Rhian is a representative of industry partner RESEO, the European opera network and she expertly weaved commentary through the questions, encouraging people to provide answers that will inform the final SPACE evaluation and potentially lead us to the beginning of our next journey.

After a beautiful conference dinner at which some small gifts were exchanged and gratitude expressed, it was time to begin to say goodbye as the SPACE team disperse once again across Europe. Some of the team will meet again soon in Dundalk, where we will critically reflect on the past three years and consider what the future may hold. As always, it is full STEAM ahead.

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