Gaining STEAM: Teaching Science Through Art

Some schools are adding art to the STEM equation, with good results.

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 Scale in geometry is the same thing as perspective in art, one teacher points out.

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Breaking down the walls between art, hard sciences and math, a new crop of educators is designing curricula that allow these subjects partner with one another, encouraging holistic learning.

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Across the country, teachers and administrators are coming to a similar conclusion: art informs science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and vice versa. Consequently, they are pioneering new methods of teaching that combine disciplines which have been isolated from one another under traditional educational models. And they are just getting started.

Andover High School in Massachusetts, for instance, teaches geometry through the lens of art. Through a scavenger hunt at a local museum, math and art students come to understand that scale in geometry is the same thing as perspective in art, says Meghan Michaud, a teacher at Andover High. Her school is in the second year of a 10-year plan to marry art and STEM.

[READ: Minorities, Women Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields]

This approach is “about 21st century learning skills,” Michaud says, and preparing kids “for whatever college or career is ahead.”

In Annapolis, Md., 8th grade students at Wiley H. Bates Middle School learn about Mexican mosaics and math at the same time. The students study traditional turquoise mosaics and create their own versions with bits of paper. Their classmates then collect sample sizes and use them to predict the number of tiles used in the artwork.

Studying and observing the art first, without the fear of getting something wrong, encourages confidence and risk-taking in the classroom, says Laura Brino, the art integration specialist at Bates Middle School.

Nettrice Gaskins, a media and technology expert based in Georgia , is pushing this learning approach to new heights.

Gaskins targets student populations that have traditionally under-performed in STEM using a unique method that she calls “culturally situated art-based learning.” It starts by first engaging students with art that speaks to their ethnic or cultural identity and ancestry.

With the help of digital media designer Laurie Marion, Gaskins in 2012 introduced high schools students in Albuquerque, N.M., to ancient Mimbre designs, which are indigenous to the Southwest.

The next steps: Teach students about the math embedded in the ancient Mimbre artwork, then have them use software to design and create an interactive mural based on the mathematical concepts they identified in the Mimbre artwork.

“Art helps engage students who are not rote learners,” Gaskins says. “We have got to give credit to all the teachers who are making this happen.” Gaskins ’ research, she says, is less about teaching a class, and more about identifying what “particular types of work engage students who have been historically marginalized.”

While it’s all relatively new, she plans to bring this integrative approach to a wider swath of the population.

On March 28, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Gaskins will convene a workshop at Georgia Tech, where she is a Ph.D. candidate, to discuss support and growth for culturally situated arts-based learning.

The goal is to create a dialogue about this topic among the experts and “build capacity for sustained collaboration,” she says.

Gaskins’ novel approach to interdisciplinary learning is but one component of a new movement – science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, or STEAM -- that has caught on in recent years.

Championing this new philosophy is the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which launched the website stemtosteam.org.

The chief objectives of the STEAM movement, according to RISD, are to “transform research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM” and “influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.” Educators there also say they wish to see art and design take a more a central role in education, from kindergarten through college.

“We are really surprised at how quickly this has proliferated,” says Babette Allina, director of government relations at RISD. Not long ago, Allina was acquainted with everyone doing work related to STEAM. Now there is too much activity for her to be aware of it all, she says.

Allina is quick to point out that while applying art to education more broadly is not a new idea, presenting art and design as equal partners to STEM subjects is new.

The RISD mantra: the disciplines are stronger together than apart, Allina says.

Lawmakers have greeted this idea with enthusiasm.

“The way we get an innovative workforce is to make sure that we have creative and critical thinkers coming through our schools,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) says. Incorporating art into STEM disciplines is a way to cultivate the minds needed for the knowledge economy, Bonamici adds.

Bonamici’s district in Oregon includes Quatama Elementary School, which bills itself as being “powered by STEAM.” Fourth grade students, for instance, learn about the relationship between earthworms, soil erosion and clay for pottery making all in one unit. They see how “it’s all connected,” Bonamici says.

Along with Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Bonamici co-chairs the STEAM Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since the caucus launched a year ago, they have hosted a webinar with Americans for the Arts, a workshop with RISD and a Google hangout on the subject of STEAM.

“Collaboration, trial and error, divergent thinking skills, dynamic problem solving, and perseverance are all skills that are fostered by the arts and can be brought to bear to improve STEM learning,” Shock says. “Arts education and integration are essential to producing a future workforce with the skills employers are looking for.”

The traction STEAM is getting with lawmakers is terrific, Allina says, but the really exciting action is taking place in the schools.

“It’s the math teacher going to the art teacher saying what can we do together,” Allina says.

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