STEAM Studio Uses Science, Technology, and Art to Go “Virtually Spelunking” in Caves—Exploring Everything From Spiders to Bats to 3D Cave Painting to GPS


A STEAM studio youngster prepares to glue "eyeballs" to felt to make a bat during a bat-making hands-on activity.

November 16, 2017

It all started with a unit on insects. Then, not to overlook them, spiders were given equal coverage. Then one thing led to another, until recently, STEAM Studio, Next Generation School’s after-school program which incorporates art into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Mathematics), just finished doing an entire unit on caves which incorporated everything from identifying types of caves and how they’re formed, to sonar (how bats navigate through caves), to 3D cave painting, to exploring the world's caves through both GPS and virtual tours, and more.

STEAM Studio is an after-school program that specifically tries to instill into its students a love and appreciation for experimentation. Every unit it covers in class includes some sort of hands-on project that provides real context for the different topics the unit covers. For example, while talking about spiders, students created a habitat in which they thought a spider would be comfortable living. They were asked, “Ok, why did you make this choice? Why do you think a spider would prefer this to this?” The designs became silly fairly quickly, with miniature beds made from wood and cotton balls springing up alongside a carpet of leaves. Nevertheless, students took pride in the projects and couldn't wait to work on them when coming in after school.

One of the best things about STEAM Studio is its innovation and creativity in how it draws students into the unit they are covering. There are not many caves in the Urbana-Champaign area, but teachers pulled out all stops to fully immerse the kids in the experience. They learned about equipment required for speluning and how to stay safe, built headlamps in their makers’ lab, and even stepped into some amazing virtual reality caves. According to Angela Nelson, the director of STEAM Studio:

“We might not be able to fully get there [visit a real cave], but at least we can give them all these different opportunities and experiences that relate to it.”

Nelson originally started at STEAM Studio in 2014. In her four years of leadership, she has seen the classes at the program grow from a single class of 16 Zeptos (kindergarten to second graders) and 6 Terras (third graders to fifth graders) into three classes: Zepto and Nano (both serve K–2nd graders) and Tera (3rd–5th graders).


A STEAM studio participant learns about the body parts of a bat.

“STEAM Studio truly is my passion, and every year I feel like we grow that little bit more, and it becomes bigger and bigger,” she admits.

A teacher before coming to STEAM Studio, Nelson compares her previous teaching experiences to working with STEAM Studio:

“I've taught in schools, too and, unfortunately, you have the parameters of a curriculum and materials you have to cover, so there's not always as much opportunity just to explore and discover and figure it out and question.” At STEAM Studio, students are given the freedom to explore what interests them instead of being constrained to learn the curriculum a school board has chosen.

What is amazing about the Studio's philosophy and pedagogy is how much the teachers listen to the kids and tailor the lessons based on the students’ interests. For example, if students are bored with insects, they can suggest another topic that they would like to learn about. An example would be when the students wanted to learn about tornadoes. Diving deep into a weather pattern that frequently appeared on news and weather stations was something the entire class was eager to explore, so Nelson and her teachers created a camp day focused on weather to conduct experiments and participate in activities based on their questions and curiosities.


STEAM studio instructor Matthew Bannon works with the children during a bat-making hands-on activity.

Another example of the amazing influence that students have over their learning curriculum is a very cool experiment that kicked off the cave unit at STEAM Studio. Students were asked how they thought caves and various formations in those caves form.


A STEAM studio youngster exhibits the bat she made during one hands-on activity.

After they answered, they were given an enormous salt block half a meter across and told to test their hypotheses. Nelson remarks on the students’ involvement, “A big part of this is that we want the kids' voice[s] in it...”

She continues that a common theory regarding cave formation is that a constant drip of water can create different cave formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites. Since salt dissolves much faster than rock, students were able to set up an experiment with their salt blocks that tested whether and how these formations are created from water runoff.


STEAM Studio director Angela Nelson instructs her students on how to make a spelunking headlamp (complete with a working LED light) during a cave unit hands-on activity.

An unusual facet of the cave unit is not just related to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). That’s where the "A" in STEAM comes in: art. When one thinks of caves throughout history, cave paintings have always been a major reflection of a people's story. So students at STEAM Studio had an amazing opportunity in their curriculum to paint in 3D on cave walls via virtual reality.

The Illinois VR Lab they visited is part of CITL’s (Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning) iFLEX initiative to build active learning classrooms around campus. In the case of the cave unit, the technology allowed the kids to see their paintings come to life on cave walls, explore the world's caves via GPS, take a tour of a real cave via virtual reality, and 3D print some cave formations. Jim Wentworth, an eLearning professional supervising the lab and its Innovation Studio, worked with the students as they explored various caves throughout the world both through Google Earth and YouTube 360 videos using the TechHub portion of the Armory Innovation Spaces:


Jim Wentworth works with a STEAM studio youngster using GPS to locate some of the world's largest, most well-known caves.

Below: A Steam Studio teacher Matthew Bannon watches a student use GPS to explore some of the world's caves.

“We built these spaces with the idea for putting these technologies in the hands of students of all ages, and so it's fun to see young kids and undergrads alike coming in and figuring out how to use these technologies,” he explains.

Students even 3D printed some of the more complex cave formations they had been learning about. Jamie Nelson, a senior eLearning professional at the Armory Innovation Studio, helped the students design and 3-D print these formations, and also enjoyed guiding the kids through the process of painting in VR. He commented, “This space, the benefit I imagine...for everyone is just early exposure to technology and how it impacts teaching and learning.”

As one of the last parts of the unit on caves, students built their own cave out of cardboard and other building materials. Once the mammoth cave was constructed, photos of the paintings they had created in the VR Lab adorned its walls. Then, once the unit was completed, to celebrate all they had accomplished, guests (including parents) were invited to STEAM Studio on November 14 and 15 to view their beautiful cave while students explain the portions they had designed and painted.

For fifth graders leaving the program, many of them question what they want to do when they grow up. While discussing how the skills and lessons that students learn at the STEAM Studio might carry over into their later lives, Nelson remarks, “A big component of STEAM Studio is we want to open up their eyes to all the possibilities out there.”

She indicates that many of the jobs for which these kids will be applying don't even exist yet, and technology is advancing so quickly that most of the current, state-of-the-art tech out there will be obsolete in a few years. So perhaps the most important skills that students learn at the Studio are how to be curious and creatively solve problems.

When asked why she does all this for her students, Nelson replies, “The big reason is to give students experiences in real life that they can start to take further than their own personal experiences and start to see the connections between the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math.”



At TechHub in the Armory, a TechHub worker, Lisette Chapa, watches as a STEAM studio youngster makes a cave painting via Virtual Reality.

Story by: Nick O'Connell, I-STEM Undergradute Student Worker and a sophomore in Mechanical Science and Engineering

Photographs by: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative

More: K-6 Outreach , Next Generation School, STEAM Studio, 2017


For more I-STEM articles about STEAM Studio and Next Generation School, please see the following:


Above: STEAM Studio director Angela Nelson works with a youngster who's making spelunking headgear during one of the cave unit's hands-on activities.

Below: A youngster decorates her helmet.

In one section of STEAM Caverns, visitors could see some of the stalactites and stalagmites the students created.

STEAM studio instructor Matthew Bannon reads a book about bats to the students.

A STEAM studio youngster helps build STEAM Caverns, piece of tape by piece of tape.

A STEAM studio youngster stuffs batting into the bat she's making (how appropos is that?).




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