"Beyond the classroom: rethinking STEAM education" conference reunites sister projects, open schooling initiatives, and EOC enthusiasts in Brussels

OTTER presented its final results during the event in the EU capital to an audience including representatives from the European Commission, projects dealing with outside the classroom learning that we've met in the Open Schooling Network, education lovers and students, and discussed the future of Education Outside the Classroom methodology and approaches

After months of preparation, on the morning of 15 February 2024 at NH Hotels Carrefour de l'Europe, right in the centre of Brussels, we kicked off the Beyond the classroom: rethinking STEAM education conference. The event was aiming to reunite Education Outside the Classroom advocates, practitioners, and enthusiasts, and start a conversation around the benefits of this methodology for students' and teachers' development alike, the obstacles encountered in practice, and more importantly - the steps we need to take to make it become a reality around Europe. 

The event started with a short welcoming speech by Ömer Ceylan, the managing director of Geonardo Environmental Technologies - OTTER's coordinating institution, followed by an introduction by Irina Elena Tiron, project adviser for the European Research Executive Agency, who has been overseeing OTTER's progress and briefly presented its ambitions and outcomes. Then we dived right into the matter, aiming to familiarise - where needed - and engage our participants on the topic of outside the classroom learning and open schooling practices!

We were honoured to have Lucy Avraamidou, president of ESERA and director of the Center for Learning and Teaching of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, as our keynote speaker. She centred her speech around our vision(s) for sustainable futures and the role out-of-school STEAM education plays in them. Lucy invited the audience to reflect on their own ideas for a more sustainable 2030 and drew attention to the current setbacks of the educational system. She spoke of schools as "disimagination machines", highlighting the standardisation of thinking, the decontextualisation of learning experiences (which makes it hard for students to link them to their day-to-day lives), and our obsession with rankings and measurements (that can drive further apart students). Science is everywhere - and Lucy emphasised the need to build a healthier, more balanced relationship with our natural environment, precisely through out-of-school practices, taking into account the Sustainable Development Goals, as well.

How does Education Outside the Classroom translate into practice, though? It was Deirdre O'Neill's turn to explain. Hailing from the University of Limerick, Deidre organised the OTTER Labs in Ireland, piloting the approach we developed in the project in real-life settings, with students from three schools in Limerick. It's safe to say she had many stories to tell after witnessing the activities live! Deirdre highlighted students' increased awareness of their nearby environment (for example, a river they'd never examined closely before), the applicability of scientific knowledge in real life, as well as the possibilities of exploring careers in STEAM. She emphasised the importance of having role models (the students were taken to science labs where they spoke to accomplished scientists), but also the impact these activities had on teachers' motivation. 

A panel discussion then followed, with Jelena Kajganovic, OTTER's coordinator, as moderator, featuring four notable guests: Stephanos Cherouvis (senior project manager at ECSITE), Federico Iannuli (researcher and project manager for The Lisbon Council), Zsuzsanna Kray (science officer at European Science Foundation), and Dr. Aravella Zachariou (Head of Unit of the Education for Environment and Sustainable Development, Cyprus Pedagogical Institute and chair of the UNECE ESD Steering Committee). The focus? The benefits and obstacles to Education Outside the Classroom. The animated discussion revelead many pain points, such as:

  • The lack of empowerment and support teachers feel in conducting outside the classroom activities
  • The lack of resources to make these activities happen 
  • The lack of understanding and awareness of the benefits of Education Outside the Classroom among parents, who are often more keen on students acquiring hard skills rather than the soft skills this methodology develops
  • The rigid curricula that leave little room for teachers to go beyond the classroom 
  • The heterogenous curricula - huge differences in approaches can be seen from one EU member state to another

Luckily, not everything is bleak - and projects like ours and those present in the room have been working tirelessly to advance the recognition and implementation of outside the classroom learning. 

The second part of the day was dedicated to a co-working session in the format of a World Café. After a delicious and healthy lunch, participants were divided into five groups, each with its own theme (EOC practices at primary and secondary level, Pathways to EOC accreditation, Incorporating technology in EOC activities, Creating sustainable networks, From innovative practices to effective change). Within these smaller groups, they explored solutions and exchanged ideas, switching the groups every 30 minutes to take part in other groups' discussions. 

Lastly, we had the honour of having Andrei Lințu, Head of Sector of REA.C4 Reforming and Enhancing European Research and Innovation, close the conference, provide feedback for the OTTERs, and discuss future funding opportunities for projects dealing with education.

Thank you to each and every one of our participants for taking the time to join our event and participate in the discussions! It was extremely rewarding to be surrounded by such dedicated professionals and we are sure that the future of STEAM education is in good hands!