Building Up STEAM at The International School Nido de Aguilas, Chile

An excited chorus of six-year-old voices with smiling and intrigued faces are craning their necks three floors above them. They look up to a team of lab goggle-wearing high school sophomores stationed on a balcony of the Science and Tech building as they all shout together, “...three, two, one... SCIENCE!”  At that moment, a Barbie with a 1 Kg “backpack” is sent careening towards her kindergarten fan club.  At the same time, a few meters away, the final tweaks to boats created from single-use plastic are being carried out in anticipation of their 50m race.  While just up the stairs, paint-soaked sponges are being launched from catapults and laser beams are bounced around a chemistry lab.

Two years ago, The International School Nido de Aguilas formed a partnership with High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, California. The ultimate goal of the partnership with HTH is to find multiple ways to meaningfully infuse aspects of the Project Based Learning (PBL) pedagogy, which HTH has championed, into all grade levels and disciplines as a means of fostering deeper learning.

A Two-Day PBL Event
In 2016, as part of this process, our high school math and science departments developed a two-day STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Mathematics) event that asked teams of grade 10 students to apply their knowledge of math and science through a series of challenges.  In 2017, these challenges evolved to include the creativity and expertise of the Fine Arts department, and an impressive STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) event was created for all students in grade 10.

Over the course of two days students worked collaboratively in teams, with limited time and resources, to complete one of seven different challenges of their own choosing.  This year the challenges included: building a boat out of single-use plastic and recyclable materials; constructing a catapult capable of launching paint to create a piece of art; creating an optical obstacle course and then finding a way to get laser beams to navigate through it; building a zoetrope to make animations on a spinning pottery wheel; creating accurate, life-size sculptures from scale models; dropping weighted barbie dolls attached to carefully calibrated bungee cords; and using the design challenge process to devise a game that would be engaging, equitable, and fun for other students to play.

On the second day of the event, the students began to test and show off their work from the previous day. They were often attended by an enthusiastic audience of young students from pre-kinder and kindergarten, who are now looking excitedly to the future when it will be their turn to ideate, create, and play with the components of the STEAM Event.

The teams involved in building boats out of recyclable materials changed into their swimsuits and headed to the Aquatics Center, where they raced their boats two lengths of the pool. The zoetrope team created HD videos of their impressive low-tech animations. The game design team introduced other students to their new games and hosted a tournament. Barbie dolls plunged nearly 10 meters before the bungee caught them, in some cases allowing their hair to brush the ground while the rest of them remained safe.  Catapults launched paint-soaked tennis balls and sponges at canvases to create abstract maps of the world or trees in their full autumn glory. The scaling up models passed their accuracy tests with less than 5% margin of error.

What Students Gained
More importantly though, all of the students involved learned about much more than the number-crunching components of the STEAM acronym.


“We placed the raft into the pool and it floated! However, once our captain tried to ride it, it began to sink, the bags tore, and he could not stay balanced. We didn't let it stop us. After the test, we decided to dismantle and rebuild it. [In the final race] our captain took a strong lead and won first place. Success! All of our hard work had paid off.  As our captain got out of the water we felt a sense of pride. We were proud with our end product in spite of all the setbacks we faced.” 

- Abigail Woodward, grade 10


Abigail’s words were indicative of all of the grade 10 students, regardless of their event.  They challenged themselves with design thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork. They worked through failure and frustration to try new and more effective means of completing their challenges. They made effective use of technology, as well as simple tools and soft skills. They showcased an incredible amount of creativity and innovation, and a high level of sustained engagement, critical thinking, and experiential learning.  They also provided plenty of entertainment for the rest of the Nido community, young and old.

Faculty who organized the event were excited at the opportunity to engage in the process of PBL teaching and learning. Events such as this lay the groundwork for Nido’s continued incorporation of PBL and the benefits of this pedagogy.


“For me as an arts teacher, supporting STEAM is important so that all students of science and math can stretch or enhance their thinking by learning how to think artistically. As teachers we can also re-engage artists with science and math by letting them see how STEAM can work also in the Arts. A broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering, design, and innovation. Through STEAM, I have observed that the humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking and provide the scientific or mathematical mind with a larger context and the potential to communicate better.”

- Caroline Maiava, Fine Arts Dept. Chair

The STEAM event has quickly become a tradition at Nido de Aguilas and looks to be just one of many PBL opportunities for students in all corners of our campus to engage in.