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Empowering learners is a messy, iterative process

By Michael Graffin
June 19, 2018
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If there’s one thing I’ve learned as an educator, it’s that bringing big-picture ideas to life with students is a collaborative and often messy process. Lesson No. 2: That’s OK, especially when you’re supported by a network of like-minded international educators.

It all started in 2015 when I attended the ISTE conference in Philadelphia. There, I shared my story and immersed myself in the educational trends on the horizon.

Upon returning, I set about establishing one of the first school library makerspaces in Western Australia, creating a Maker Monday after-school program to foster our girls’ tinkering with new technologies and Scratch.

With the help of a local university, I created our school’s all-girl robotics program and helped coordinate an academic research project that explored the impact of hands-on maker activities (such as light-up LED origami flowers) on girls’ engagement and understanding in science.

These projects helped inspire my dream to offer all our students, and especially our girls, the opportunity to learn, collaborate and problem-solve through meaningful STEM and robotics experiences.

Today, we’re just over three years into our STEM journey. It hasn’t been an easy or straightforward learning process, and we’ve overcome significant challenges and setbacks along the way. Here are some of the key lessons we’ve learned:

STEM is a way of thinking, doing. It took me years to understand that, fundamentally, STEM is a way of thinking and doing – an opportunity for students to engage in hands-on collaborative problem-solving using the design thinking and engineering process. For example, my students can design, build and program robots to complete missions on a simulated planetary surface as part of an integrated science/technologies project.
Ideally, STEM should not be conceived or taught as a specialist subject or teaching responsibility, instead it should be a collaboration between passionate classroom and specialist teachers that bring the curriculum to life.

A whole-school approach. I’m indebted to my school leadership team, past and present, who gave me the time and space to experiment, reflect and grow as a STEM educator through our after-school makerspace and specialist robotics program.

We started small, working with a small handful of teachers. Several years on, following the introduction of John Hattie’s Visible Learning and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset approach within our school learning community, I’m delighted to be part of an ongoing whole-school conversation focusing on the development of authentic hands-on STEM, design thinking and robotics projects for all our students, not just those involved in competition programs.

As we embark on this exciting new phase of our STEM learning journey, I’m proud of our achievements and progress so far. We’re starting to see our girls growing as designers, problem-solvers, engineers,
coders and makers.

While not every student will grow up to work in a STEM profession, I’m confident that the educational experiences we’re striving to provide will help them become strong, resilient young women with the aptitude and skills to make our world a better place.

Michael Graffin is a STEM and robotics teacher at Iona Presentation College in Mosman Park, Western Australia. He was recognized as an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2015 and is an Australian STEM X Academy Alumni. He blogs at