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As we look forward to our workshop space being open for our first year, Alexa Torlo, Engagement Manager at STEAMhouse and Birmingham City University, tells us about how ten years of STEAM learning has helped to launch STEAMlabs – hack-style events bringing together multi-disciplinary collaborators to investigate complex real-world challenges.

The term ‘collaboration’ can be a bit of a buzz word but definitely not at STEAMhouse. Our philosophy is about working together to bring out the potential in people and allow them to feel part of something. It’s about giving people a voice and it’s a value that I strongly believe in.

Many of us have been on the STEAM and STEAMhouse journey for 10 years or more.

Our STEAM journey has given us opportunities to benchmark and position what we consider as
STEAM – collaborating with our partners to test methodologies, processes, toolkits and different ways of delivering the STEAM philosophy.  It’s also allowed us to understand the physical space that you need to make this happen and that’s what STEAMhouse now represents.

It’s an iterative process. We’ve been building our confidence in the STEAM philosophy based on
our lived experience – I feel privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to consider this strategically at the same time as delivering on the ground – working with individuals and businesses to test STEAMhouse and working with the feedback.

I want the STEAM philosophy to work right across the university because it really can empower young people. I see the STEAM way of working as a major selling point for Birmingham City University (BCU).  I want to see our students go out into their communities feeling that they are real change makers in this world and can make a difference. Computers and tech will never take away people’s ability to collaborate in a social context– these are often seen as soft skills but I believe that they’re core skills – and that’s what I’m passionate about.

Through international projects such as the Cross Innovation Project and Urban M we’ve been able to study great examples of what’s happening in different countries and modify this to find new ways and new partners to develop STEAM thinking for a Birmingham context.

STEAMhouse is very much not just about the space it’s about new ways of thinking, new practice and it’s very definitely about the community. The Maker Monday initiative is a great example of this. It’s a real mix of disciplines and a buzzing community wanting to look at complex challenges and work together to solve them.

Maker Monday has allowed us to think about the types of participants that would engage with STEAMhouse – it’s been a real tester for us and a great way to ask stakeholders if STEAMhouse is what they wanted. At the same time we’ve developed a Connecting Group within BCU to engage academics about innovation, consider what STEAM means to them and get them on board with the philosophy.

We also now have an amazing team of innovators working on STEAM Labs. My ambition is to build on this – to grow the team of innovators and connect with more people who want to be pushing the boundaries and trying new things– both in the academic space and in the business community.

For a STEAM Lab to be successful we need a range of roles to be filled. The Challenge Owner is the organisation that sets the challenge. The Challenge Leader comes from the academic community with an ambition to move things along and find the outputs required. The STEAMhouse team play the role of facilitators. Last but not least are the mentors and collaborators who come from our pool of talent into one of these two roles. When we run a STEAM Lab we don’t always know where people will come from to participate and that’s one of the exciting things about it.

What’s really fascinating are the spin offs from the STEAM Labs activity. We generate so much value in terms of unpacking the challenge of each STEAM Lab in such a creative and collaborative way. STEAM Labs are about learning by doing. Taking people through a design thinking process that puts the user or the citizen at the heart of the journey. It is about working backwards from the point where the problem is happening and saying to the service user or involved citizen ‘let’s listen to you’.

Taking this people-centred approach has now evolved into the creation of the Citizen Lab project.  It’s using the STEAM Lab model but taking things wider. Citizen Lab is an amazing concept – bringing in universities to work with the West Midlands Combined Authority and local authorities to engage citizens and using the STEAM Lab model for the initial ideating and prototyping space to do the design thinking in.

The public sector is faced with monumental challenges and solutions aren’t always joined up. There isn’t always the time or the capacity to investigate root causes and this is where universities and researchers can play a role. It’s what we do.  It makes total sense to connect them together.

Feeling inspired? Get involved with STEAMhouse by checking out our upcoming events or by registering to join here.