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Teaching STEAM, “soft” Skills, Minecraft and Lego Robots: John Burfoot

Posted by Peter Barnes on June 5, 2019 at 1:14 PM

What is STEM and why did it become STEAM?  

I asked John Burfoot, a STEAM teacher in a New South Wales Primary school to explain and we recorded our chat as an episode of The Learning Capacity Podcast.         John Burfoot - STEAM specialist teacher

John also told me about how STEAM lessons enable students to learn valuable 'soft' life skills, as well as technical and technological skills.

His journey from a student who failed all his final high school exams to a degree qualified teacher is inspirational, and can serve as a reminder to students that their lives are not defined by what marks they achieve in school exams.

He worked as an electronics apprentice, a job in avionics, and making explosives for special effects in films before realising his passion is teaching.

Listen to the interview  


Topics covered

  1. Teaching STEM/STEAM in primary schools
  2. “Soft” skills: Perseverance, Collaboration, Growth Mindset, Conflict Resolution

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Anzac Park Public School, Sydney, Australia
  2. Higher School Certificate (HSC) in New South Wales
  3. Dick Smith, Australian serial entrepreneur & record-breaking aviator
  4. Macquarie University
  5. Australian Catholic University
  6. Bridges to Higher Education

Resources/books/articles/places mentioned

  1. Minecraft
  2. Lego Robots
  3. Dick Smith electronics kits
  4. Jaycar electronics kits
  5. Bankstown Airport, Sydney, Australia
  6. All Roads Lead to Rome – school to career transition


If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 99 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Teaching STEAM, “soft” Skills, Minecraft and Lego Robots: John Burfoot

Peter Barnes: So, John Burfoot, welcome.

John Burfoot: Thank you.

Peter: Nice to be talking to you.

John: Thank you.

Peter: You specialise, you're a science and STEM specialist in New South Wales primary schools, I believe.

John: Yes, a very privileged role, I must admit, I graduated from university as a regular classroom teacher. Did my Bachelor of Education in primary. I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to teaching. I didn't start at Uni until I was 35 and I had an interesting and colourful background of different occupations prior to that. So over several years it did morph into STEM.

Peter:  So interesting and colourful background. It sounds like you're a colourful identity. Took you till you're 35 to get an interest in education. Tell us about that, how did that happen?

John:  Well, when I was a kid, in fact, all the way through primary and high school, I knew I wanted it to be a pilot within the air force. That was my passion. That was always my ticket to a dream job. All the subjects, and all the hobbies, and all the extracurricular stuff I did, all lent itself towards becoming a pilot in the air force. Did the Air Training Corps cadets, did physics and chemistry in the HSC. Unfortunately the last year of my HSC I thought I had done enough. I took my foot off the gas pedal. The year prior I had won the math award for getting the top mark in my school. But by year 12 I failed the HSC.

Peter: Oh, what a shock.

John: Yeah. Every single subject, failed the HSC in every single subject. The worst being English. I sheepishly turned up to the recruiting van that they used to have at various places to go in as to recruit. They just simply said, "I'm sorry, but your grades aren't good enough."

Of course I was shattered. So what I then had to do was to fall back on my next area of interest, which was electronics. I've always been a bit of a tinkerer with electronics. I grew up with Dick Smith electronic kits and tech electronic kits.

Peter: Oh yes.

John: I think one of my greatest gifts when I was a kid was receiving the 115 electronics kits from Jaycar Electronics.

All the way through primary and high school, I've always been tinkering with electronics. I actually just went and did a trade in electronics. I did that for four or five years, and halfway through my trade... Because I started initially with repairing cassette players and TV's and amplify systems. I'd always loved aircraft. My dad said to me, "Why don't you consider transferring your apprenticeship over to the aviation industry?

So that way you can still, we'll do your electronics but in the context of aviation." So it sounded like a good idea. I contacted Bankstown airport at the time, and I contacted a few different avionics centers, and sure enough they had a vacancy for someone who wanted to continue their apprenticeship.

So I remained there for the next four years. So I did really large scale avionics installations. In fact I worked on Dick Smith's helicopter.

Peter: Bought products and his kit and ended up working on this helicopter. How's that for a circle?

John: Yeah. Isn't that incredible? It was the one that he flew around the world in and it was heavily modified. So yeah, I got to fly a lot in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, large and small scale.

Then after a while I also was tinkering with video production. I used to make short films for Tropfest, and just hobbies and with friends. My mum at the time said to me, "Why don't you consider going into special effects in films?" So I said, well yeah, that sounds interesting, because I like film filmmaking. And so I contacted what happened to be a special effects company, that happened to be operating in Sydney.

They happened to be looking for somebody who had the skills in electronics and was keen to learn. Then I became a special effects technician working on electronics and special effects in smoke and explosions and breakaway glass.

Peter: Wow, that's really interesting stuff. I mean lots of kids would love to do that.

John: Yes.

Peter: Blowing things up and...

John: Yeah, it was terrific. It was just like a dream job. Like who doesn't want to work behind the scenes on a television set or a movie set. Now, at the time the pay was lousy. So I didn't do it for the money and it was just purely the experience. I'm not sure if you remember, but there was Candid Camera in Australia about-

Peter: Yes.

John: About 10, 15 years maybe. I was the person who developed that unit that allowed the technicians to plug their audio systems into the telephone and they dial the number and they had to do in call.

So I made that whole system. Because of my experience in avionics and also in electronics, I was able to make that. The boss thought I was pretty cool in doing that. But then I was chasing the dollar and I left that industry and went into sales of all things. I was a life insurance salesman for four years.

Peter: Wow. You've really had an interesting background. I mean, what a great thing. What a great lot of experience to bring to a classroom.

John: Yeah, indeed. And from that, almost anything you teach, whether it's religion to maths or to English, you can always draw on something that occurred to you in the years leading up to it. So it has been a real advantage, I think, for someone who is a teacher and has that life experience and work experience in different industries.

Peter: Well, that's an interesting thing, just the idea. Is there any value do you think of teachers, rather than going to school, going to university, becoming a teacher like that in that sequence, having some sort of a mandatory period out in the world doing other things? I mean, that'd be pretty hard to organise, I'm sure. But, yeah.

John: Yeah. Well see, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do the whole time. You know, I felt a little bit lost. Particularly with year 10, 11, and 12. Although I wanted it to be a pilot, I thought, what if I didn't get in? So I felt a lot of pressure. I remember feeling a lot of pressure year 12 to absolutely know for sure what it was I wanted it to do and perhaps what my backup strategy was. That could easily derail a lot of students in year 12.

My advice, in fact there was a Webinar I did only a few years ago that was called All Roads Lead to Rome, and it was one that I did that helped year 12 students and school leavers think about their path. I think if your viewers and listeners Google that, they'll see me talking about my progression, and I unpacked that a bit more in detail.

Basically the message is that sometimes you have to either follow your heart or your head, in knowing where you want to go, and sometimes it may not make a lot of sense. Like in my journey I followed my heart of electronics when I couldn't get into being a pilot. Then I was guided along the way to something else that was linked to electronics, then something else that was linked to my area of interest of filmmaking.

Things pop up in various times in life, and you think, well, I'm getting this feeling of wanting to do this thing, I wonder if I should pursue it. The answer is probably yes, without needing to know why you pursue it and then something leads to something else. And then if you backtrack, you think to yourself, wow, now I can see how I got to this point and I would never have planned it any better had I tried.

Peter: Yeah. So in retrospect it all makes sense, but looking forward, you couldn't plan that out, really.

John:  That's right. I guess relax a bit, and just go with what they are more interested in or passionate about then and then that's probably the best thing.

Peter: Right advice. So, anyone who's got children that are approaching the end of high school... What's that Webinar address again?

John: Well I think if they Google my name and All Roads Lead to Rome, they'll eventually stumbled upon it.

Peter: Terrific. Okay.

John:  Yeah, I think it was put together by Bridges Connect. It was animation between Macquarie University and Bridges, which worked with lots of different schools around New South Wales area.

Peter: Oh Great. Okay. Thank you. So the last little piece of your journey to where you are now, what actually inspired you to get into teaching then?

John: Yeah, so at age 35, by then I was in still in the financial services industry, but instead of being in sales, I was in communications. So I developed an ability to write for a paper and for online material. I had a boss that was very strict and he got me upskilled.

So, although English was my worst subject in school, doing the HSC, I ended up learning those skills on the job, which is something to remember too for anyone who doesn't feel like they're learning or they're getting the good grades in their schooling. There is a chance for one to get those skills when they leave school. So, I was in communications, and fortunately that enabled me to take on a university degree.

I was also doing a bit of soul searching at the time and did a few courses on personal development. At the end of one of those courses, it was like a beacon, a neon light in the sky, that my vocation was to work with children. I didn't think I would ever be doing that because I knew it would take a degree for me to work with children.

I didn't think I was ready or capable of giving up work and going to Uni full time for four years. But I did, and my wife supported me and I went to Australian Catholic University. I did a full time Bachelor of Education, primary degree for four years.

It was great because I got to redo a lot of those subjects. I got to also relive my passion for science. Maybe this might lead towards answering your next questions, but my last year of Uni, the English lecturer contacted the science lecturer at the university and she said, "Do you know anyone who would be interested in helping teachers explore the benefits of Lego robotics in education?"

She thought of me because I had actually a topped the class at Uni in science and technology. That was always an area of interest of mine. Given that I had already done a trade electronics, any questions that related to electronics I could nail.

I think there are even some questions that I showed them how to actually make the question better. So she put my name forward and I almost gave it up. I almost said, oh no, I'm too busy, I'm about to go and start my Prac and I want to get into teaching.

But this thought of Lego robotics sounded too good to be true and so I did it. Then I was given this box, this Lego robotics box. It was called the RCX kit, and it was one of their first, actually it was their first true lego robotics platform.STEAM - paper plane launcher

It was very new at the time, I think it was around about 2006 when I was introduced to that. I put myself in a room and I took out the kit and I started looking at all the components. Now looking at components for me was quite common because I was used to looking at components as a young kid with electronics kits. I started putting it together and it was a little bit different because it involved the computer, downloading software, downloading a program, making the robot do a particular mission.

Then when I achieved this particular task, this mission, something woke inside of me that had been dormant for many years and I just got bitten by whatever this bug was. I thought, man, this is such a great tool, great resource. So the first school I began teaching at, I told them about this resource and then by the second year I was doing it once a week as their RFF (release from Face to Face) coordinator. So it kind of went from there.

Peter: So from there you've gone now... You're self employed, you run your own business teaching in schools and doing professional development with the teachers, I understand.

John: Well not a lot right now. What happened was I ended up resigning from a full time teaching position at that Catholic school that I was teaching at because I felt that I just couldn't physically keep up with the workload. I had just become a father at the time and I was teaching for three years and I've got a newborn. The commitment of being a first time parent and working full time as a primary school teacher was overwhelming. I was looking for a way of creating a niche and leveraging off my interest in science and technology, and this new area of robotics.

I thought maybe I might be able to pick up a part time role where I could specialise as a science RFF teacher, which really is someone who can just teach science. I thought I could do that.

So actually there I was, I resigned at the end of the year, after three years at this school, and I had no job to go to. Talk about taking a leap of faith. Had No job to go to in December, resigned from full time permanent position. Because I just felt this was my path and I could contribute to this path.

Then this school in Padstow, Sydney and the lovely principal, Patricia  at the time, offered me a part time role as a science teacher and also a day a week a regular teacher. What happened over the ensuing years is I gradually developed my skills as a science specialist in other robotic specialist, and then started doing more training around robotics.

That was just before the word STEM even became popular in the schools. So by the time the STEM hit the ground, I was already several years into doing science, STEM related activities, which included robotics and coding.

Also by that time I was at Macquarie University at the Innovation Center. Where we had schools coming in and teachers coming in doing various workshops. So, I had two roles. I had my side business, which I could do my training for teachers and I had my regular business with, with schools. That might be one day a week at one school, might be another day a week at another school.

At one stage, I think three years ago I was actually working at four schools and trying to balance that across public and private schools. I haven't done that much as with my own business. Now I am four days a week at a public school, Anzac Park Park Public School at Cammeray, Sydney.

Peter: Where my granddaughter is in year one.

John: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

Peter: She loves your class.

John: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. It's really nice to come to a school, and I was part of the foundation of that school. I started in 2016 there, and it started with just four kindergarten classes. Now it's up to nearly 700 students across K to six. That particular kindergarten class who are now in grade three, they've had that time with me for that period.

Now all the other students also know me. It's really nice when you come into a school and they all know you and they say "Hello, Mr. Burfoot," or something similar. It is nice. I think they love it because... I must admit, I do have parents saying to me, my daughter loves coming to STEM, or my son loves coming to STEM, all he talks about is STEM, and all he talks about is Mr. Burfoot.

It is a reminder that it is a privilege to be in that role, because I think students get excited about being in STEM or STEM activities because they're actually doing something and making something and they're using bit of their creativity. Sometimes they make things that they can take home, sometimes they make things that are just online or virtual. It's often something that sparks their attention.


Peter:  For any of our listeners who aren't entirely familiar with the terms STEM and STEAM, S-T-E-M and S-T-E-A-M... You want to just briefly give us a definition of those two things and what's the difference? And what's the I?

John: Yeah, sure. Well, so STEM originally came out of a high school concept. It stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. It was a way of making or designing projects that had links to those four different key learning areas. Sometimes they would be a project that different lecturers or different high school teachers would tap into that area to produce something at the end. So that's it in its raw form now.

So the A came into it because people were questioning, is it something that's useful for society? You could argue that making a weapon out of raw materials is a STEM activity. But is it really something that's ethical to make a weapon? And so the arts really is a lot about humanities and about ethics. It's about making something that is both useful and ethical for society.

Peter: Oh, okay. So the A is not necessarily about poetry or art or anything like that. It's about the morality of what happens when you apply the S-T-E-M pieces. Is that a fair summary?

John: Yeah, yeah. That's a good summary. There’re obviously opportunities for teachers and students to make the creative arts as part of a STEM project, for sure. Because there's aesthetic principles, there's lots of opportunities for students to create both form and function with their creations.

Also the visual arts and the creative arts can feature very well in a STEAM project. From most skills perspective that A is more to do with the, does it serve a good purpose, does it have, I guess an ethical stamp on it.

Typical STEAM Lesson

Peter: Excellent. Really good. So can you just describe a typical lesson if there is such a thing?

John: Yeah, certainly. So I like to begin most of my STEAM units with an immersion activity. That gets them pretty excited. Whether it's through exploration, they might get, for example, some magnets if we're doing a unit on magnetism.

Where they can do some open ended exploration activities where they started investigating the properties of magnets and start coming up with a hypothesis of how magnets work, and what is the magnetic field around a magnet. Then we will do some experiments together that unpack that a bit, and either prove or support their hypothesis, or they might now get a new idea of how something works.STEAM - LEGO robotics animation

So we go through a few weeks of developing the understanding and the skills around the particular topic area. Then the final five weeks of a 10-week program is usually them making something that requires their skills and knowledge on the area, for it to come through.

 Now that on its own, may be good enough for most schools, having a standalone independent STEAM unit that ticks off curriculum areas in science and technology, and also areas of in math and English as well. Because they have to write up sometimes instructions for the material. They have to report on their product and give some feedback to their peers. Certainly a lot of writing evolves.

STEAM aligns with the curriculum

Peter:  So what you're doing actually aligns with the curriculum?

John:  It does, yeah. I have to put together a program that has different subject areas, and we have to align that to the different areas of the syllabuses in New South Wales. But more than that, what we do in at Anzac Park is that we link what we're doing in STEAM to what they're doing in their classroom.

So most schools, they would say STEAM or STEM as an RFF activity. I'm still an RFF teacher, so that means that I teach my lesson for an hour a week, and in that hour the classroom teacher has their break time to do their admin.

But because in Anzac Park there's two teachers on class at a time, they alternate. So one teacher will be on break and the other teacher will be supporting me. That works out really well because not only are they helping me manage the classroom for a better understanding and completion, but they're also being up-skilled. So they don't necessarily rely on me to know that is about STEAM.

Peter:  Wow, that's a double benefit isn't it? You're teaching kids and you're also teaching teachers at the same time.

John: Yeah, correct. So I think it's cool if I can invest in getting that extra time to allow teachers to do that, it also reduces costs on professional development of teachers because they're actually getting a bit of PD each week.

Peter: That's great value. Yeah.

John: It's great. And then for example, they'll be looking at the same concept areas in their class for that term. What we do in STEAM is that we get the students to actually make something and it's there like a double dip at that content area. It reinforces that learning in that area, so when they come out of that term they've had two shots, two bites at the apple.

Peter: Do you just stay with each class all the way through for four terms, or are you just doing a term for a class and then you move on to year one term one, year two and so forth. How does that work?

John: Well, I'll be working with all the students from K to six every term.

Peter: Right.

John:  So, STEAM is very important and very big in Anzac Park, which is why they've got a dedicated STEAM teacher, as with myself. My role is to provide that one hour of STEAM to every single student each week, and for every term. That must link back to what they're doing in their classrooms and the regular teachers.

Peter: Well if my granddaughter is any guide, students love this. Are there any kids that just aren't interested?

What’s the most engaging STEAM tech for students?

John: Yeah, I mean it's not the panacea and I accept that for various reasons. Also, I mean let's face it, in a classroom with 20 people, 20 children have different learning needs and you can have a spread of abilities that could span several years in one in one grade. Then you multiply that and then you get 40 or even 50 students in one class across two teachers. It has challenges.

There are limitations in some degree, and some of that can be management of resources. It could also be the level of the student is at, could be also the learning style of the student. It could be the level of difficulty. What we're doing might be a little bit difficult, and some students might check out and seek other ways of having interest.

But I must admit, out of all the resources and the different tech that I've worked with over the last nearly 15 years as a STEAM teacher, guess what has been the most engaging for every student? And I'm talking from grade two to grade four is when we are introducing it. What do you think was the most engaging tech that engaged everyone?

Peter: I reckon, if it was me, it would be building some lego robot.

John:  Well I would've thought that too, but for various reasons it's not for everybody. Some students, they don't resonate with it. But would you believe, Minecraft?

Peter: Minecraft really?

John: Minecraft has been the most interesting tech in STEAM, and every single student is engaged by it and it's just phenomenal. Like I've heard of schools using Minecraft in the server environment where they're all on multiplayer and they're building stuff together.

We introduced Minecraft last year to stage one students, so they were in grade one and two. Which was a mission getting them signed up initially. We also did that also for grade three and four the following term. What they were doing was building different worlds that had some evidence of sustainability.

They needed to meet a criteria, and they had different members of the team building different parts of their community. Each class had their own world that they built. A lot of students actually had more knowledge of Minecraft than I did. It ticked off STEAM because you know, they were collaborating, persevering and being creative, and now building.

Peter:  Wow. How much fun I can imagine. Yes. It makes me think back when I was in primary school many years ago, they used to put us... It was a Queensland country school, and they used to put us on a bus once a week and take us into the nearest big town about an hour away. We did woodwork and metalwork, and that was our kind of tech thing.

I'm just thinking how far it's come in that time, you know, there's parallels between then and now. In both situations we were doing maker activities, your kids are doing maker activities in various forms. But your students are learning way more skills, I imagine, than we did when we were just simply making little tin boxes and cutting bits of wood.

Can you just talk to us a little bit about the things, you mentioned briefly before, kids working together in groups and so forth. Those sorts of skills, what are those skills that they're learning when they're with you that are going to be useful for the rest of their lives? Besides the hard tech sort of stuff?

Perseverance, collaboration and growth mindset

John: Yes, very good point. I mean one of the benefits I feel of robotics in education was it teaches students to persevere through problems. That notion of persevering through something to get to a solution is such a critical thing and that is really for me, the essence of what robotics can bring. It's because it inspires and motivates students to persevere because of the nature of Lego, and the nature of open-ended creative activities.

It's calling to a student constantly to say, have another go, finish me, I want to move, I want to be created to serve a purpose. That often motivates students to persevere. They learned through perseverance, they get something that's workable, they get something that's useful and is pretty cool.

So perseverance is a big area of STEAM, it's one of the outcomes that we try to meet. It's an area that we show is a skill for life. Linked with that is why robotics lends itself to be worked on in pairs or in groups. We've pushed that. We want students to work together on projects.

 The collaboration is an aspect of students learning that is critical. When there's disagreements it creates an opportunity for the incidental learning. We'll sometimes stop a lesson and we'll talk about, you know, well what is the conflict here? Let's see if we can talk about why two people may not want to work together, what the concerns.

If we have to sacrifice a lesson because we've got a couple of groups who are not willing to work together, what we can gain from unpacking that and understanding more of why people don't want to work together, that can be a better outcome in trying to get through the lesson so to speak.

So those areas of lifelong learning, which I believe relates to perseverance and collaboration and having a growth mindset, they're all kind of tied together. Which I guess it's a lesson to students to know that they have the ability and they have the skills to not give up on something.

They just have to see evidence that through their effort they can get results. Whether it's trial and error or whether it's collaboration, it's an effort-based learning where, I participated in results.

Peter:  Fantastic. That is so good that they're learning these skills. You don't just sit there talking to them about them, you're actually putting them in a situation where they experience those things and how it actually feels to persevere, to work with others and to solve those conflicts. What great skills to take into future life.

John: Yeah. Let's face it, we remember very little or retain very little unless there's some emotional attachment to it. Well let's think about that. When something significant happens in our lives, we're likely to never forget about that. And once in a while we get reminded.

Peter: Well John, I think the kids in Anzac Park and wherever else you are going to be doing this are extremely fortunate. I wish I was a kid and I could go and participate in that. It just sounds like so much fun.

John: Well, I can’t wait you to come to our school if you can.

Peter: Well I'm actually going there this afternoon. Can I come one day and stick my head in and watch it? Will this school allow that? Would you allow that?

John:  You certainly can. We are calling for parent helpers actually, from week six. So we ask for parent helpers to come in and we need them cause they're going to be making a lot of musical instruments from house materials.

Peter: I'm putting my hand up for it. I'll talk to the school and get myself enrolled.

So John, for any of our listeners, teachers or parents, who'd like to contact you to learn more about what you're doing or perhaps even get you to come into their schools, how would they do that?

John: Well, they can do that by going to my website, www.sciriffic.com.au. Or they can contact me directly at JohnBurfoot@gmail.com.

Peter:  Wonderful. John, thank you very much for your time today.

Topics: Learning Capacity, Podcasts, Careers, Teaching

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