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.” 

AoSL Releases Report Linking Arts-Based Learning to STEM Innovation


Arts Integration in Action! Young Audiences’ Summer Arts & Learning Academy 2nd graders learned math and multiplication through the arts with teaching artist Mama Rashida of Wombwork Productions.

The Art of Science Learning (AoSL), a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded initiative, spearheaded by its Principal Investigator, Harvey Seifter, has released its newest report, titled The Impact of Arts-Based Innovation Training on the Creative Thinking Skills, Collaborative Behaviors and Innovation Outcomes of Adolescents and Adults. The report was written by Audience Viewpoints Consulting, the independent research firm AoSL retained to conduct the study. The effort compared the impacts and outcomes of arts-based innovation training with more traditional innovation training that does not incorporate the arts.

“With this research, we now have clear evidence that arts-based learning sparks creativity, collaboration, emotionally intelligent behavior and innovation in both adolescents and adults,” Seifter said. “The implications for 21st Century learning and workforce development are profound.”

Working with Worcester, MA high school students and early career STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professionals from San Diego, the results were compiled through a series of experimental studies testing AoSL’s hypothesis: that integrating the arts into STEM innovation training results in enhanced individual creative thinking skills, increased collaborative behaviors, and more robust team innovation outcomes.

The research yielded compelling results; a strong causal relationship does indeed exist between arts-based learning and improved creative thinking skills and innovation outcomes in adolescents, and between arts-based learning and increased emotionally intelligent and collaborative behavior in adults.

Arts-Based Learning Led to Stronger STEM Innovation Outcomes in Adolescents

The study divided participants into control and treatment groups. Both groups used a hands-on project based approach to learning innovation. The treatment curriculum replaced 9 hours of the traditional innovation pedagogy used in the control curriculum with 9 hours of arts-based activities designed to achieve the same learning objectives. The study lasted five weeks.

“Our research provides quantitative evidence that validates what artists, inventors, scientists, technologists, educators, entrepreneurs and humanists have known for thousands of years,” Seifter said: “discovery and innovation happen at the intersection of art, science and learning.”

The research demonstrates that arts-based learning directly strengthens many key 21st Century learning and workforce skills, a finding with numerous immediate and longer-term practical applications for K-12 and post-secondary education, informal learning and workforce development.

Arts-Based Learning Improved Creative Thinking Skills in Adolescents

The data strongly suggests that arts-based learning can help STEM companies to spark high performance innovation teams among a new generation of professionals, and that schools, museums and science centers can create environments that foster creativity, collaboration, innovation and engagement by integrating the arts into STEM learning.

Read the full report and its key findings

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About Harvey Seifter
Art of Science Learning was founded by Harvey Seifter 2008, and grows out of his decades of work at the intersection of art, science and learning. In addition to his research work, Seifter brings his arts-based approaches to innovation, leadership development and high performance teamwork to dozens of global corporations, and serves as Visiting Associate Professor of Design, Arts and Cultural Management at Pratt Institute in New York City. He is also a classically trained musician with a 25-year career at the helm of several distinguished arts organizations including Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Magic Theatre of San Francisco. During his tenure these organizations garnered 5 Grammy Awards, 24 Obie and Critics Circle Awards, and the Kennedy Center Award.

About The Art of Science Learning
The Art of Science Learning (AoSL) is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded initiative, founded and directed by Harvey Seifter, that uses the arts to spark creativity in science education and the development of an innovative 21st Century STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workforce. AoSL’s national partners include The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Americans for the Arts and The Association of Science-Technology Centers.

All text Republished with permission from the Art of Science Learning (AoSL)

Meet our new artists: FutureMakers

Meet Our Artists-FutureMakers_2

During the last two years, our roster has grown in size to encompass new artists, ensembles, and art forms. From slam poets to improvisers to Capoeira masters, these new artists are undeniably unique.

To introduce audiences to our new artists, we’ll be posting interviews with those who recently joined our roster, giving them a chance to share more about themselves and their experiences with Young Audiences so far. We recently sat down with Matt Barinholtz of FutureMakers.

What is your background as an artist?

FutureMakers started from work I was doing as a visual artist and sculptor with other makers and educators. I was frequently asked if I could bring the type of work I was doing to classrooms. I had met artists, engineers, and technologists that wanted to do projects with young people, but didn’t feel confident about how to approach it. I wondered if an organization could connect makers and educators, so both could build their skills.

During the summer of 2012, I was invited to work with a supportive cohort of community colleges in Maryland to bring STEAM workshops (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) into their summer programs for youth. Since then, we’ve steadily been growing our staff, or as we call them, coaches, and are excited to be working with Young Audiences to provide a formal pathway for those interested in joining FutureMakers to deliver programs to schools.

How did you hear about Young Audiences?

Someone shared a workshop offered by Pat Cruz, Young Audiences Education Director. I wasn’t able to attend, but reached out to Pat to find out how FutureMakers could learn from and work with Young Audiences. In 2013, we were invited to support a summer learning program in Harford County, and participate in the Teaching Artist Institute (TAI) Seminar. Through TAI, we developed a FutureMakers residency. We’ve been making things that wiggle, draw, glow, and do crazy stuff with kids ever since.

Meet Our Artists-FutureMakers_1

See these sculptures in action here!

What has been the most memorable part of the programs you’ve had through Young Audiences?

I was watching morning announcement videos at a school which used puppets created by students with TAI instructor and playwright John Morogiello. They were funny and sharp. It wasn’t about adults, it was about youth development with young people out in front. I was impressed by the way art was completely integrated into that school. It made me wish that more places would work and integrate this way.

What was your favorite part of the Teaching Artist Institute (TAI) Seminar? How has the experience changed your approach to teaching?

TAI solidified the way we at FutureMakers think about the pathway our coaches follow. It focuses our expertise and creativity on student engagement, measurable outcomes, and addresses the needs of our teacher partners. They get to see and do what they’d like within boundaries of what they need to do.

Our coaches are experiencing how maker education can connect in classrooms because of Young Audiences. Being observed, receiving feedback, and having scheduling and communications support is an enormous value that Young Audiences adds to our organization.

What does your art form–particularly as it relates to STEM subjects–teach students?

With technology, things are moving toward additive processes – for example, 3D printing, which is a process we incorporate in many community workshops. Traditional craft and art media are now expanding to incorporate materials often found in science or technology classrooms, or only available to higher education students. In a rapidly evolving, project-based learning world, coaches help young people embrace the design process in their creative lives – think like engineers to figure out how to solve a design challenge, and have the confidence to iterate, or try again, when things go in unexpected directions.

How do the lessons or skills you teach students apply to their everyday life outside of the classroom?

Students asking, imagining, planning, creating, and improving is the core of what we’re about. Young people have limitless imaginations, and are open to learning how to take a step back and ask questions. In the past, young makers followed plans or prescriptive examples to complete a project.  We’re learning that truly effective coaches facilitate their discovery of paths and options that lead to mastery – supported by the design cycle.

Why do you believe art is important for every student to have access to?

Young people need to have the opportunity to try something and fail, and a coach who can help them through difficult spots. Art was the only thing that kept me focused and motivated in high school; it was my identity early on. When we’re working with students in upper-elementary and middle school, identity is a large and important part of what our residencies are about. Art is a fast path to forming and grabbing onto an identity, whatever the content is.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Young Audiences roster artist?

It’s incredibly validating to know as an organization we’re doing something that our school systems embrace. I think the most rewarding aspect is knowing that we’re working in a community of other practitioners who are phenomenal performing and visual artists and amazing coaches. That is a very rare mix, and we’re honored to be a part of it.

Learn more about FutureMakers’ offerings through Young Audiences.

Keep an eye out for more interviews featuring our newest roster artists! See past new artist interviews here.