Inspiring Girls with STEAM Power and the Model Renaissance Man

Could a Renaissance man who excelled in all the areas encompassed by a STEAM curriculum inspire more girls to further their education in that area? The author of a new book believes the answer to that is yes.
Ariella  Brown

As we saw in Women in Tech: Their Current Status, What They Have Achieved and What They Want, there is still a significant gap in tech and science-related fields. For those who attempt to solve the problem from the ground-up, the solution lies in getting more girls to pursue an education in STEAM fields.

While we are used to seeing the acronym, STEM for science, technology, engineering, and math, some have now taken to adding in an A for arts to be more inclusive of the creative and design aspects involved in innovation and development.


In the TED talk below, Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, co-founders of LA-based Two Bit Circus, explain how they came to advance from STEM to STEAM and how that reshaped their approach to inspiring students. 

Now, when you think of that kind of combination of bodies of knowledge, what should come to mind is what’s known as a Renaissance man. And the paradigm of that type of person who is associated equally with masterpieces in painting and with plans for inventions is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci.  

Whether his name is featured as the focus of a special exhibit, or in the titles of thrillers, he’s never completely out of the spotlight.

Inspiring Girls with STEAM Power and the Model Renaissance Man
A bicycle made according to Leonardo da Vinci's design. Source: Gadfium/Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a video of the Leonardo Da Vinci workshop exhibit that took place in New York City a decade back. 

The 500th anniversary of his death this year is bringing some extra attention to this great figure of the Renaissance, including some special museum exhibits. But it also gave one woman an idea of how to inspire young women to pursue an educational path that will lead to a career in STEAM fields.

STEAM Power: From the Renaissance to the 21st Century

The idea behind the Heidi Olinger’s new bookLeonardo's Science Workshop: Invent, Create, and Make STEAM Projects Like a Genius is that children in general, and girls in particular, can be inspired to explore scientific principles through hands-on exploration, following in the footsteps of the Renaissance man par excellence. 

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The book encourages them to experiment, create projects, and explore how art intersects with science and nature and includes photos of Leonardo’s own notebooks, paintings, and drawings for visual inspiration. On that basis, it covers a range of topics ranging from the science of molecules and physics to graphic design and recycling. 

Olinger explained why the famous painter of the Mona Lisa is the perfect inspirational figure for this purpose:

“What’s important is that Leonardo did not think of art as separate from science or science as separate from engineering. His investigations as scientist and engineer strengthened his art because he understood anatomy, physics, nature, and geometry.”

The author is the founder and chief executive officer of Pretty Brainy. She launched Pretty Brainy in 2008 with the goal of designing innovative learning that respects girls’ genuine interests and evaluation of science, technology, and math. 

In 2010, Olinger led a pilot workshop in The STEM of Fashion Design™ that resulted in Pretty Brainy becoming an organization devoted to designing and delivering experiential learning that is connected to real-world implications and outcomes.

In 2013, Pretty Brainy became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the official mission of Empowering Girls to Gain STEAM.

Below is Olinger’s TED talk entitled "How to get girls to like STEM.”

As explained on the Pretty Brainy site, STEAM learning has the ability to achieve the following:

Intensify students’ experience of learning, including why and how they learn.

Blend disciplines, as they are applied and experienced in the world beyond school.

Facilitate critical thinking. This includes students thinking about their thinking, assessing assumptions, learning how to form questions, and developing the ability to analyze ideas and projects, including their own.

Cultivate innovation in service to community.

Prepare students to contribute to the problem-solving and decision-making required of professionals in the 21st century.

Foster students’ ownership of their work and its outcomes.

The same philosophy is at the heart of Leonardo's Science Workshop: Invent, Create, and Make STEAM Projects Like a Genius, as you can tell from the contents of the six chapters. 

The six chapters

Chapter 1 is called “Take Wing.” Its contents are the following:

  • You Are in a Soup of Air Molecules | Project: Pour Air and Create A Molecular Experience
  • Leonardo and Flight | Projects: Create an Airfoil, Prepare for Takeoff, Make The Classic Dart, Make The Milan Falcon
  • Grounded and Skyward: Gravity and Thrust
  • Drag Is a Force of Flight | Projects: Experiment with Increasing Drag, Design A Parachute, Create Drag, Safely Deliver A Payload
  • Lift Up, Drop Down: Go Fly a Kite | Project: Prototype A Kite
  • Grasp the Four Forces of Flight

Chapter 2 is “Moving Along: The Science Of Motion.” Its contents are the following:

  • Clarifying Problems and Discovering Solutions | Project: A Moving Story
  • Are We There Yet? | Project: Determining Average Velocity
  • How Motion Happens | Projects: Start Me Up!, Putting Newton's Law Into Motion
  • Water-Balloon Math | Project: Balloon Drop For Gravitational Acceleration
  • Buoyant Force | Project: Water-Displacement Experiment

Chapter 3 is entitled “One Energy Source Flows To The Next: Light, Wind, And Electromagnetic Fields.”  Its contents are the following:

  • The World Comes in Waves | Projects: Write with Rainbow Light, Electron Dance, Build A Model Wind Turbine
  • The Rainbow We See
  • Wind Works for the Earth
  • Electromagnetic Field | Project: Build A Generator (To Create an Electromagnetic Field)
  • Telling Electricity What to Do | Project: Creative Electric Tech 

Chapter 4 is on “Designing Technologies.” It defines terms and addresses current issues: 

  • The Real Meaning of Technology
  • Technology is Still Important Today | Project: Blend Science and Art to Make Paper
  • Plastics and Problem Solving | Project: Fashioning Plastic
  • Scientific Perspective | Projects: Draw A 3-D Illusion, Create an Illusion of Space
  • Blend Chemistry and Art | Project: Alfresco Science Mural

Chapter 5 is devoted to the timeless, “Rocks And Stars.”

  • Earth and Its Moon: Inseparable from One Another | Projects: Eyes to the Sky: Moon Watch, Connect the Moon's Phrases to the Sun and Earth
  • Explore the Moon and Keep Asking Why
  • Imagine the Unimaginable: Impactors and Near-Earth Objects | Project: Build a Comet, Create a Cosmic Snowball
  • You Are a Model of the Universe | Project: Astronomical You: Measure the Night Sky

The final chapter ties together the child’s experience with the source of inspiration. It’s entitled “Write A Letter To Leonardo.” Its contents are the following: 

  • Describe the Experience You Have Gained
  • When he was about 30 years old, Leonardo needed a job, so he wrote to the duke of Milan, Italy, and promoted his talents.
  • Take inspiration from Leonardo. Write your own letter expressing your skills—those you know you have and those you will develop. Write your letter in the present tense, as if you already are able to do everything you want to do!
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