In thinking more broadly about the skills students need to support them in their continued work with technology, Director of Educational Technology and Innovation Jaime Chao Mignano seized the opportunity to combine the Grade 3 exploration in fungus with a Grade 9 design project to make mycelium bricks. Inspired by the “Mushroom Bricks: Grow Your Own Home” workshop by Tech Interactive, the mycelium project is an in-depth investigation into using emergent sustainable material to make everyday objects. The project shifted how students approach STEAM projects by expanding the design thinking process into systems thinking.
In design thinking, students learn to re-frame problems by understanding human needs. Cycling through iterating, prototyping, and testing their products, they learn to solve problems through empathy. Systems thinking, a holistic approach to problem-solving, recognizes the various factors and relationships influencing an outcome. Using these methods, students develop higher-order interdisciplinary thinking skills integrating knowledge and experience from more than one field.
The Mycelium Project ties Grade 9 Explorations in Tech with Grade 3 STEAM classes. In this Goal IV year, Ms. Chao Mignano says they wanted projects to reflect our core purpose and build connections between authentic and purposeful divisions. In the spirit of community, the project becomes a dialogue between Grade 9 students charged with designing molds for Grade 3 students learning about fungi and mycelium’s role in the ecosystem. Together, they investigated mycelium as a biological tool for design.
STEAM projects are rich with opportunities to make connections between science, art, and math. Students become innovators and engineers while exploring new technologies. Grade 3 students learned about interdependent systems that help ecosystems thrive while gaining foundational critical thinking and inquiry skills. Grade 9 students honed higher executive functioning skills like collaboration, adaptable thinking, and project management as they dabbled in human-centered design.
Lower School Science Specialist Beatrice Winter began the unit with a discussion, asking students what they knew and didn’t know about fungus. Students explored the different families of fungi and learned that they include mushrooms, molds, yeast, and lichen. Guest speaker Upper School Science Teacher Will Robertson guided the students on a mushroom hunt on campus, teaching the girls how to identify different species. They dissected mushrooms in the classroom to learn each part and conducted taste tests.
Through their explorations, Grade 3 students learned that mushrooms are the fruit of mycelium, a critical structure of ecosystems whose main function is to convert organic material into nutrients. They discovered that mycelium is an interdependent system that helps organisms, like trees, communicate and send necessary nutrients back and forth. Grade 3 students exemplified their newfound knowledge by making observational drawings and a 3D diagram of the mycelium web.
Once Grade 9 students delivered their 3D printed molds, it was time for the grand finale—to make the mycelium brick. Grade 3 students activated the mycelium in a mulch-like material called substrate and compressed the organic matter. When the bricks were fully cured, they spread them out on a table and explored what they could make with the bricks. Some students used hand tools to make ornaments. Others combined bricks to make sculptures.
"It's a lot of hands-on experiments and it's very experiential and I never feel like it's a problem for them to stay focused or engaged. They really love learning about science and especially incorporating art and design as tools to understand scientific concepts."
"Science is everywhere. Science is about getting to know and understand the world around you. I want the girls to understand that they are scientists, they don't need anything special to be scientists. They don't need special tools to wonder about the world around them."
Upper School Educational Technologist Stanley Johnson prepped his students for the project with a quick review on mycology. He introduced how people use it to produce products, from sustainable building materials to leather goods and clothing. Mr. Johnson emphasized during the design process for students to think about how to design with their users in mind.
Students divided into teams, created roles for each team member, and began a rapid prototyping process sketching their brick designs. Students explored different shapes and the potential of a building system to create structures. Some groups veered away from the traditional rectangular brick design favoring triangles or trapezoids for versatility. Once groups had their final designs, students used Tinkercad to create 3D models for Grade 3 students.
Grade 9 students created molds for themselves to make mycelium bricks and are looking forward to conducting compression, fire retardation, and thermal tests in the spring. For the project's final step, students created marketing pieces for their product to demonstrate their understanding of the material and its potential.
"One of the things I want them to get out of this is that there are true opportunities to make the world a better place with the things that are around them. When they realize this, they feel empowered."
"As an institution, we always talk about explorations in technology historically thinking about circuits, wires, and computers. But this is a technology too. The exciting thing for me is that it's a cross-age group, and cross-disciplinary, because it brings in both mycology and engineering."