The spontaneous cheers coming from an eager group of Year 7 students is a welcome sound after several tense minutes of discussion, hopeful breath-holding, disappointed sighs, and determined debating.
One student likes to stand back and take a wide view of the challenge on the Magnet Wall in front of him.
One girl in the group is up close, next to the tall metal board, shifting around and swapping the sturdy magnetised pieces on it, as her friends excitedly gesture to ramps needing more incline, chutes that could be lowered, and pinball-style deflector walls requiring slightly less angle.
At last, they are pleased with the path they have created, admire it for a moment, and then give the signal to another girl who lets a small wooden ball loose at the top of the run.
They let gravity take over, sure that the complex ball run they’ve created as a group will work with the forces of Physics and give them the outcome that has been elusive so far… The ball zooms along the path, bouncing off deflectors, careening into tubes, spinning around open chutes, making its way high up one ramp, then tipping off the top to drop perfectly onto a lower ramp and jumping through a hoop.
Then it lands with a hugely satisfying clink in the metal bucket at the bottom of the Magnet Wall. The roar of success is instant and fills the school’s STEM Hub with enthusiastic energy.
In a STEM space that is traditionally dominated by tablets and screens, ‘unplugged’ moments like these of collaboration, problem solving, systems thinking, and resiliency are vitally important to creating balanced learning environments where students can thrive. According to several reports in recent years, the benefits of ‘unplugged’ experiences for children specifically, but Australians in general, are significant and important.
Studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association have linked excess screen use to depression, sleeping issues, and attention difficulties in even the youngest students. But there are other, more tangible, benefits to unplugging in these education spaces that are often technology-heavy.
“We love seeing schools add ‘unplugged’ resources to their STEM hubs with our Big Blue Blocks, Magnet Walls for ball runs, Giant Light Bright, or large-scale construction kits like Rigamajig,” said Liz Rossiter, Director of Mud Kitchen, Australia’s leading supplying of ‘unplugged’ play-based STEM equipment for classrooms and communities.
“These are awe-inspiring, larger-than-life options for tactile STEM exploration that truly inspire computational thinking, and teach STEM concepts in a playful, non-digital way for deeper engagement.”
Indeed, moving away from screens to teach STEM can often help students understand the ideas and be more likely to be able to transfer them to new contexts.
Tangible, ‘real world’ interactive experiences are vital to the development of creative problem solving, imaginative thinking, and positive peer-to-peer relationships.
Now more than ever, introducing ‘unplugged’ STEM play into classrooms is essential to creating the best 21st century learning environments for all young Australians.