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Putting the A in STEAM

Wednesday, April 19, 2017  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Some will argue that art has always been part of science, technology, engineering, and math, even without representation in the STEM acronym. Look at a smartphone, for example. Is the design not equally important to the mechanics of the device? How does it fit in your hand or your pocket? How many colors are available? What it looks like, for some, is equally important to what it does. And thus, art is added to STEM to become STEAM. Recognizing the importance of art in engineering as well as the science in art, schools are finding unique ways, such as sewing, to marry the different aspects of their curriculum and give art equal consideration.

At Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School in Memphis, TN, 2nd grade teacher Amie Plumley and senior Kindergarten teacher Libby Shannon incorporate STEAM concepts by teaching their students to sew, both in class and in an after-school Sewing Club. They start with plastic needles and lacing cards, teaching students the correct grip and safety techniques. Mastering the pinching type of grip on a needle enables students to develop strength in their fingers, which benefits other skills such as handwriting. The “push and pull” motion develops additional strength. Cutting with scissors also comes into play – another opportunity for fine motor development.

Students sew on canvases or burlap and work their way from using plastic needles to thicker metal needles to regular sewing needles. Again, safety is a top priority. “We’ve never had any major issues,” Plumley said. “We talk about safety a lot and that it is a responsibility and a privilege to sew.”

“It takes a lot of modeling,” Shannon said. “And we have a lot of rules, like always know where your needle is.”

She keeps needles on a large magnet and at the beginning of class, they count all of the needles. At the end of a class, she collects the needles and they count them again to make sure they have the same number as at the start. Students must always sit while they sew, and may not run around.

Another important rule is “It’s okay to make a mistake,” Plumley said. “We can usually fix it. It’s an opportunity for them to problem-solve, figure things out, and make it work.”

While learning to sew benefits students in and of itself, Plumley and Shannon don’t sew just to sew. “We sew with a purpose,” Plumley said. Students have sewed numbers as part of a math lesson and sewed different shapes. Often the teachers will create a sewing project to accompany a language arts lesson or a holiday project. After reading the book “Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons,” students sewed buttons on their own designs.

Plumley encourages students to make something useful when they sew, such as an item of clothing or a gift for someone. On one occasion, the Sewing Club held a Stuffed Animal Clinic and invited other students to drop off stuffed animals in need of repair. The Sewing Club members performed “surgeries” and returned the stuffed animals to their owners later on.  

Plumley, who authored a book about sewing, and Shannon have found that both boys and girls enjoy sewing. Starting them early in life helps to dispel any myth that sewing is only for one gender. After all, every clothing designer (male or female) and every surgeon (male or female) learned to sew at some point.

“Sewing requires focus and effort,” Plumley said. “It’s also empowerment – students know that their teacher has faith in them. They can take that confidence and use that in other areas of the curriculum. And they become more independent and also help other kids.”

Shannon also has seen students who may struggle in school or in social situations perform very well in sewing and other arts. The nature of a “sewing circle” encourages students to talk with each other as well as the teachers in a manner different from regular class time.

Coming back to the over-arching STEAM curriculum goals, sewing allows students to use their design engineer brain in many situations. “They find other ways to think about the world,” Plumley said.

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