Building Up STEAM

Written by Barbara Krebs,
Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member

If you follow education trends even a little, you can’t avoid the STEM acronym. In fact, at many area high schools, getting a slot in the highly popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) magnet program is tricky at best.

Why is that?  Why do people automatically assume that if you want your student to get ahead in life, your best bet is to seek out an education that prioritizes a STEM-based curriculum over one that values the humanities or visual and performing arts? Now, enrolling in a STEM-focused program is certainly not bad advice. But, it’s definitely not the only path to success as one recent Washington Post article reported.

“Kids have been educated in a computer world.  But that computer world continues to threaten traditional jobs, so success will rely on the ability of students to innovate and use tools in a non-traditional way.”

In the article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students,” the Post reported on a 2013 study that Google conducted on its own hiring practices. Its founders, with solid backgrounds in computer science, felt certain that only “technologists can understand technology.” But after every bit of data was gathered and analyzed, the company discovered something unexpected. Of the top eight criteria considered essential for a top employee, STEM expertise rated… um… eighth.

This led to a deeper dive into the data, which ultimately led to Google re-evaluating its employment processes and putting more emphasis on hiring “humanities majors, artists, and even MBAs.” Other companies (such as Chevron and IBM) have also discovered the positives of hiring liberal arts majors because they “prize their ability to communicate.”

pam negrin creative stitching
Students at Western High School worked with fiber artist Pam Negrin to stitch the likenesses of important, black, female scientists onto one collaborative work of art.

On a personal level, I feel very strongly about this. My daughter, Colette, spent seven years (three in middle school and four in high school) pursuing a Performing and Visual Arts education. She learned to sing, dance, act, write, and most importantly from my perspective, think creatively. And while she was singing and acting her way through high school, she was also taking AP Physics and Calculus and learning to wire circuit boards. So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when she enrolled in Engineering as a college freshman.

While some people were shocked at the 180° turn she made, I viewed it as the logical conclusion to a style of learning that she honed as an arts major in high school. Combining a love of math and science with the arts is not as unusual as you might think.

“Finding a path to my final images is a complex choreography of math, my sensibilities as an artist/scientist, and the subtleties of the subject.”

Take, for instance, Dr. Tim Christensen, biology professor at East Carolina University (ECU) and Senior Faculty Fellow in their Honors College (full disclosure – that’s how I first met him, when touring ECU with my daughter, who was accepted into both ECU and their Honors College). Dr. Christensen is primarily a scientist but also an artist. Merging the two disciplines, he fully embraces and personifies the concept of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

Dr. Tim Chritsensen’s photograph, Rosette Nebula

I was immediately struck while perusing the awe-inspiring galactic photographs on his website, AstroWimp. “As an artist, I’ve been heavily influenced by my scientific training,” he wrote. “To a scientist, images are ‘data.’ Standing in both art and science worlds, I attempt to convey the art of the data.” In his role as teacher, Dr. Christensen transfers the wonder he experiences as a scientist and an artist to his students.

He readily admits that while he finds jumping back and forth between scientific and artistic worlds a natural leap, that is not the case with every scientist.  “Some are still wary of anything that can’t be measured scientifically.”  Nevertheless, he continues to champion the intersection of science and art, as evidenced in his own artwork. “Finding a path to my final images is a complex choreography of math, my sensibilities as an artist/scientist, and the subtleties of the subject.”

Dr. Christensen is currently collaborating with a fellow faculty member, Daniel Kariko, Associate Professor of Fine Art Photography. Their project, dataSTEAM, “focuses on artists who work directly with scientists to develop a deep understanding of the data, preparing artists to contextualize data in their art, connecting both disciplines… art to science, and science to art.”

First graders in Young Audience’s Summer Arts & Learning Academy created monsters, then partnered with classmates to write mathematical word problems based on their different numbers of eyes.

Starting in the fall semester, the two will “facilitate collaborations between Art and Honors/Science students” leading to a gallery exhibit at the university. But more important than the exhibition is, of course, the concept of cross-fertilization between the two disciplines.

As Dr. Christensen explained it, “Kids have been educated in a computer world.  But that computer world continues to threaten traditional jobs, so success will rely on the ability of students to innovate and use tools in a non-traditional way.” He feels that merging science and art will create students who are quicker to think outside the box and can straddle both the worlds of imagination and hard-core data.

YA artist Amanda Pellerin worked with Brooklyn Park Middle School students to create a Cells and Viruses mural that will hang in MedStar Harbor Hospital.

Similarly, what Google has identified as the top characteristics of successful employees are not unlike the same skills that educators and other business leaders identify as being critical to a person’s success in careers, in college, and as a citizen: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. These are behaviors that Young Audiences’ teaching artists observe and nurture every day among students in arts-integrated classrooms. And so, for those folks who doubt the value of arts integration into core curriculum subjects such as science and math, the, ahem, data demonstrate that arts and science together create a more balanced individual who can successfully work in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing work environment.

An in-progress section of the ceramic Cells and Viruses mural that artist Amanda Pellerin and Brooklyn Park Middle School students are creating.

But don’t take my word for it, just ask my daughter.  In a recent phone call, Colette was excitedly discussing her Statics class.  The definition of her Statics class from ECU’s website- the analysis of equilibrium of particles, addition and resolution of forces, equivalent system of forces, equilibrium of rigid bodies, centroid and moment of inertia, structural analysis, internal forces, friction, and virtual work- left my head spinning.

When I commented on the apparent difficulty of the class, she assured me breezily, “Oh Mom, it’s easy for me.  After all those arts classes in high school, I can see in 3-D.” 

Growing Up Green at Mount Rainier Elementary School

Children in Prince George’s County Public Schools know how to celebrate Earth Day! Through Growing Up Green, a PGCPS arts integration initiative, children in kindergarten classrooms learn environmental stewardship by experiencing nature first-hand, marveling in the wonders of our natural world, and nurturing a passion within themselves to respect and preserve it. Funded in part by a BGE Green Grant and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the program engages kindergarteners in meaningful and authentic outdoor experiences that help connect them to their local ecosystems and inspire them to learn more about protecting our environment. The arts provide the vehicle that the students use to demonstrate and communicate their understanding to the greater learning community of their school.

At Mount Rainier Elementary School recently, YA roster artist Pam Negrin worked with young students to record their own observations of plant life over the course of her residency, The Life Cycle of Plants. On outdoor adventures, the class immersed themselves in the drama of nature. They set out to identify and explore the many characteristics of plant life in all of its forms: seeds, seedlings, mature plants, flowers, and fruit. Their drawings and observations were then rendered in colorful yarn, stitch by stitch into one large-scale embroidered mural for their entire school community to learn from and enjoy.

The children’s work serves as a reminder of one of the biggest lessons even our smallest students can teach us. Just as this kindergarten class’ finished mural is a collaborative effort, so is making our world a safe, strong, and healthy one for every living being. Happy Earth Day to all.

Pam Negrin’s artwork includes embroidery, appliqué, drawing, collage, improvisational quilting, printmaking and sculpture. Her residencies transform classrooms into creative and collaborative handwork studios where students create something beautiful together. Schedule one of Pam’s residencies for your classroom.

pam negrin creative stitching

Honoring Black Women in Science

pam negrin creative stitching

At the oldest public all-girls high school in the United States, students recently had the opportunity to work with fiber artist Pam Negrin to stitch the likenesses of important, black, female scientists onto one collaborative work of art. Along with partner teacher Jennifer Becker, and with help from both the science and graphic design departments, Pam worked with Western High School students on the large project from conception to realization.

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Many of these women truly were ‘hidden figures’ and one of the scientists, Stephanie Hill, was a Western alumna!”

pam negrin creative stitchingDrawing inspiration from the New York Times best-selling book, Women in Science, the group of students and teachers approached the project with reverence.We lovingly call it our ‘Women in Science Mural’,” Mrs. Becker says of the artwork depicting portraits of women who paved the way for her students. “Many of these women truly were ‘hidden figures’ and one of the scientists, Stephanie Hill, is a Western alumna!”

Three different classes participated in this exciting project. “First, Western’s lead science teacher, Ms. Washington, came up with a list of 25 women who have made important contributions in STEM fields,” Mrs. Becker explained. “Graphic design students were tasked to research each of the 25 scientists, then collaborated with another group of students in a fine art class to turn these women into beautiful embroidered portraits.”

pam negrin creative stitching

pam negrin creative stitching

pam negrin creative stitchingPam taught the students how to project drawings onto fabric to create their own patterns. They learned various embroidery stitches to create different textures for hair, clothes, skin, and even a stitch for teeth! “Pam Negrin’s residency was the highlight of our year. The students are eager to see their finished artwork on permanent display in the Science department.”

pam negrin creative stitching pam negrin creative stitching

Young Audiences' Sun

Pam Negrin’s artwork includes embroidery, appliqué, drawing, collage, improvisational quilting, printmaking and sculpture. Her residencies transform classrooms into creative and collaborative handwork studios where students create something beautiful together. Schedule one of Pam’s residencies for your classroom.

Volunteering to Support YA Artists and Arts Integration in the Classroom

Getting Involved: Volunteering to Support Artists and Arts Integration in the Classroom

Volunteering to Support YA Artists and Arts Integration in the Classroom
Pam and I in her studio stitching in a few finishing touches on a student-made embroidery project.

Co-written by Barbara Kesler, an active Young Audiences board member, volunteer, and retired Baltimore County Public Schools teacher and YA Visual Artist Pam Negrin. During Barbara’s 39-year teaching career, she instructed third through sixth-grade students and spent the last 23 years at Franklin Elementary where she taught fifth graders in all subjects.

After attending a Young Audiences informational “Impact Breakfast,” six of my friends and I were intrigued by visual artist Pam Negrin’s embroidery and weaving with students. Pam’s residencies transform classrooms into collaborative handwork studios, with countless ways to connect textile art with core subjects.

We learned that Pam’s hours of preparation, finishing work, and providing one-on-one attention in a classroom of 25-30 students was challenging. With just one teacher and one teaching artist, the need for more hands, heads, and hearts presented a natural opportunity for volunteering with Pam.

add-headingOur volunteering experience happened both in the classrooms and at Pam’s studio. Throughout the experience, new friendships have developed and inspirations shared. Meeting at Pam’s studio, we help while learning; rolling yarn, threading needles, and helping finish collaborative projects. In the classroom, our presence helps individual children feel successful in their completed works—sometimes by giving extra help with a new skill, sometimes by organizing materials, and other times just by listening while they work!

During a Spring residency at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary in Baltimore City, two English Language Arts third-grade classes were exploring character traits of a recently read Judy Blume novel. Expanding this textual element to their own character traits, the children designed self-portraits. The designs started on paper and were then embroidered onto fabric. Pam instructed them to explore color values, textures, and shapes.

Three volunteers accompanied Pam to the school to assist the very enthusiastic children in creating their self-portraits. The results were amazing.

Volunteering to Support YA Artists and Arts Integration in the Classroom

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One particularly shy boy proudly presented his self-portrait and said, “I did it!” Another told us how he was teaching his poorly behaved six-year-old cousin to ‘draw with yarn.’ “It calms him down, and we all need that!” he proclaimed. Another student told us that he had taken over the household chore of mending torn clothing for his brothers and sister. “No one else in my house knows how to use a needle like me.”

Volunteering to Support YA Artists and Arts Integration in the ClassroomChildren were working together at sewing tables, chatting amicably about the novel that they were reading in class, their sports activities, and their weekend plans. All were engaged in a very peaceful and friendly manner, helping each other when necessary. No doubt presenting their finished projects to their families on Mother’s Day was a beautiful culmination of this artistic endeavor. And it left three very happy volunteers with a feeling of purpose in assisting these youngsters in a meaningful project that will surely be an unforgettable experience.

Young Audiences' Sun

You can get involved, too!

At Young Audiences, we constantly see the arts inspire, engage and change lives. We are reminded of this power every day through our work providing more than 7,000 arts learning experiences a year to children in Maryland classrooms. And the benefit extends beyond the children, impacting the providers, observers, supporters and, yes, volunteers.  Learn more about how you can get involved with Young Audiences through volunteering.