Cranbrook Schools’ STEAM Curriculum Builds Problem-Solving Young Minds

From the youngest ages, students at Cranbrook Schools' Brookside Lower School in Bloomfield Hills blend science, technology, engineering, art and math with a college-prep elementary curriculum to grow critical thinkers for tomorrow's world.

When kindergarten students at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills poke toothpicks into marshmallows, they aren’t just passing time until recess. They’re building three-dimensional statues that require measurement, balance and design skills, blended with an age-appropriate understanding of various artists they have studied. When they complete their masterpieces, they share their design concepts.

This is one example of how pre-kindergarten and elementary students at Cranbrook’s Brookside Lower School experience curriculum and programming for science, technology, engineering, art and math – or STEAM. At Cranbrook, STEAM isn’t a subject; it’s a method of equipping students with real-world problem-solving skills.

“Students do need to learn to read, write, do math and communicate, but they don’t all do it in the same way,” explains Keith McConnell, division head for Cranbrook’s Brookside Lower School, where students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade learn. “By incorporating STEAM, we are able to provide kids with a variety of methodologies to learn critical thinking, in addition to the basic college-preparatory elementary curriculum.”

The faculty at Brookside Lower School recognize that their very youngest students, who graduate from high school in 2038, will face a world filled with jobs that are yet to even exist. “We prepare kids for the world they will enter, not the world in which we live today,” McConnell says. “We have to teach our kids how to think, and STEAM provides a way to do that.”

STEAM provides skills-based learning

Rather than experience art, technology, or math in isolation, Cranbrook students learn from a cross-disciplinary skills-based perspective, and are continually challenged to put what they learn into practice through activities and projects that call on all of the various STEAM disciplines.

“Visit the classrooms of our very youngest students on any given day and we might be designing toys or engineering a sled to go down a small hill,” explains James Kurleto, innovation and technology specialist at Cranbrook’s Brookside Lower School. “Older students come to the Innovation and Technology Lab to develop inventions or use electronics in a circuit playground to code and build a prototype. Almost any type of project may have individual components, but they also get together as a team and each brings different strengths to the work.”

During the fourth grade innovation project, students identify what they consider to be a real-world problem and, through scientific research and application of design thinking, engineering, technology – and plenty of trial and error – create a prototype of their solution. The final activity is a presentation at Cranbrook Institute of Science.

“We invite parents and the community, and the kids communicate their concepts and share what research, math, engineering, and artistic principles they employed,” McConnell says. The students also interview members of industry partner organizations, like Quicken and Shinola, to learn about problem-solving techniques used in the workplace.

“They all experience the collaboration and communication skills that go along with these projects, and they learn how to communicate with adults and give presentations,” he says.

Engaging students with real-world challenges

Because students at Cranbrook Schools apply knowledge directly and learn experientially, they leapfrog the question “when will I ever use this?” Teachers say they are blown away by the resourcefulness of the students, and parents say they wish they had similar educational experiences when they were young.

“The best thing we can hear is that a student came home excited and wanted to show their parents what they are learning in class,” Kurleto says. “It’s like something has caught fire in their minds, and it’s something they want to carry forward on their own.”

The solution to Michigan’s pothole challenge may well be on the desk of a student at Cranbrook Schools.

“We never underestimate what a child can do,” McConnell laughs.

“This is why we are unique and provide such a rich educational environment. We use new, innovative ways to put knowledge to work so when our kids leave us in 2027 or 2035, not only do they have the content, but the skills to put that content to practical application.”

Content brought to you by Cranbrook Schools. For more information, visit


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