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STEM Labs, Tinkering Spaces and Design Studios: What do I pick?

... Venkatesh Datla, Cofounder, Creya Learning & Research

Every progressive school and educator already has a STEM Lab, Tinkering Space (Maker Space) or a Design Studio or is just on the verge of getting one to their school. It’s the ‘in thing’ today to have and rightly so, for it is one small step towards a giant leap away from rote learning. It’s also the first step towards inspiring India to innovate.

With so much awareness in school leaders around the need for a truly experiential project based learning (PBL) to be included as part of school calendar coupled with the emphasis by the top echelons of the Govt. on tinkering and innovation, Indian K12 education is poised for a monumental transformation towards 21st Century Learning.

With great buzz comes great confusion. Is STEM better or STEAM? Does buying a kit of Robotics or a Science activity kit mean implementing true STEM? How do we know if the tinkering program is actually delivering results? By the way what should we be measuring other than engagement value for children? Should I worry about the connections between the activity to the curriculum? Did somebody just say Design Thinking is cool?

As a school leader, responsible for multiple stakeholders including students, parents, teachers and the regulators, you have to have a clear set of guidelines that can help you decide on the program, its implementation, monitoring and measurement for results.

First things first: STEM or STEAM (with a little bit of focus thrown on Arts) is just semantics unless you focus on the end learning outcomes you want. The STEM/STEAM based activities or projects are a means to an end, not the end itself. We can have the best of the IoT, Robotics, Engineering Mechanics or Electronics Kits, but of no use, unless the project activity design around them is right.

This brings us to the second question of the need for a structured approach. While Tinkering movements and Maker Spaces symbolize the free spirit culture of getting hands-on before minds-on, sustaining the same requires an entire eco-system of parents, teachers and the education system to adapt. Given where we are at the moment and the constraints of capabilities and mind-sets, a well-designed transition path from guided activities to open ended challenges should help children get the best out of any PBL based STEM/STEAM activity.

So where does Design Thinking come in? For students to see the connections between classroom theory to real world problem solving, they need to empathize with the problem and define it better. Design Thinking (DT) provides the framework for ideating, prototyping and most importantly reflecting, the end goal of any learning process. Teachers (or rather coaches) should be trained and supported in the DT process so they may facilitate the whole Project Based Learning effectively and not didactically.

So in essence, STEM/STEAM Lab, Tinkering/Maker Spaces or Design Studios are not isolated add-on activities in a school. They all blend together towards the end goal of helping students acquire Thinking Skills, Digital Literacy Skills and Life Skills: all essential for them to become inspired innovators. In short, equipping them for success in college, careers and life beyond school.

Author: Venkatesh Datla is a Co-founder at Creya Learning (, the pioneer of integrative STEM Learning and Design Thinking programs for 21st Century Skills in the Indian K12 segment. He is deeply invested into the advocacy of the ‘thinking through tinkering’ movement and believes building empathy in students is an essential precursor for them to apply learning and make the world a better place.