Catching STEAM

Posted by Margaret Weisbrod Morris, Dec 07, 2016 0 comments

If you haven’t heard about the movement to place art within STEM curriculum, or STEAM, you’ve been missing one of the steamiest topics to hit the arts in decades. Essentially a catchy acronym for arts integration targeted at math and science, STEAM has ignited the imaginations of scientists, artists, and educators nationwide. In the last seven years, model programs and STEAM initiatives have popped up across the country. These programs are now in full swing, paving new paths between the arts and science at every educational level. Those on the outside of art and education may wonder: what does a STEAM program look like? Why do it? This blog offers a quick look into one such program steaming forward in the center of the Midwest.

Now in its 5th year, the ARTspace program at the Lawrence Arts Center in Lawrence, Kansas, is a comprehensive STEAM program for 1st-5th grade students. The program runs weekdays after school and for 10 weeks during the summer break, serving more than 600 students a year. Based on the idea that critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to innovate are essential skills, the goal of ARTspace is to create a learning environment where young people exercise thinking skills through creative practice. A central function of the program is to provide the space and time outside of school for students to play with ideas. The framework is design thinking: teaching students how to move through the process of invention, and to gain confidence within it. Using design as a scaffold for learning, ARTspace curriculum sets the stage for young people to experiment, test their imaginations, practice innovation, and build creative multidisciplinary connections. The curriculum is built to connect directly with students’ school curriculum so that students can practice skills and apply knowledge gained during the school day in a creative, hands-on setting.

Each day, classes burst with the energy of excited young minds in the act of discovery. Walking into a classroom of fifteen 7-9 year olds, you are just as likely to be greeted by the cacophony of students troubleshooting a solution, or the pin-drop silence of young people completely absorbed with an experiment. Classes are led by art educators, with STEM professionals present in the classroom as scientists-in-residence. Using curriculum written for the program by licensed art and science teachers, each lesson links a key principle of art with a scientific concept while connecting under a cultural theme relevant to young people. The STEM content provides a common thread through visual art, theater and dance experiences. Most often in this program, visual art and dance activities are the vehicles for experimenting with STEAM concepts. Using theatre exercises and imaginative play, students develop a rationale and context for their experiments. Central to the entire experience is being immersed in an atmosphere where students are encouraged to be creative in new contexts and accept failure as part of successful learning.

ARTspace lessons are designed to motivate students to use art, math and science within creative activities. Students in “Space Ninja Training Camp” cement their understanding of aerodynamics as they design, build and launch handmade bottle rockets. They also develop characters and story for the context of their launch. Within this scenario, they study factors that affect their rocket’s launch and trajectory to develop a practical understanding of the relationship between purpose, function, and design. Students in “Superhero Academy” learn the bones, tendons, and muscles that make up the human skeleton. Adopting superhero personas, students put their knowledge into practice using modern dance techniques while imagining the superior skeleto-musculature their Superhero needs in order to be “super.” Students in “Box City” study urban planning and architecture to build a kid-sized city within the Art Center. Students learn about gravity, force, and tension to construct cardboard buildings, landmarks, and infrastructure that adhere to the architectural principles of structure and proportion. Students plan and construct the entire city—from streets and buildings to electing city officials, deciding social roles, inventing currency and local economy—all with ample time to play within their city.

A formal evaluation of the program has been developed and is in its final pilot stages. Using a scaled evaluation of student artwork and verbal assessments alongside a creative self-efficacy measure, early analysis of data shows that students are learning the STEAM concepts covered in class, while building their confidence with the process of invention. However, like trying to catch steam itself, the process of STEAM education and evaluation can be unpredictable because experimentation is the heart of it. Like the act of invention, it brings unexpected results and new discoveries. At this early stage, we haven’t yet fully grasped the advantages of this program. In the meantime, what we can embrace are the benefits that will influence our students’ futures. 

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