Supplementing STEM’s Palette

Incorporating art into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has been a natural consequence for many teachers; for others, a more deliberate process. Art has been intrinsic to the STEAM Lab in the Millstone Township (New Jersey) School District since its inception.

“From very start of our program, it’s been called STEAM. Good design incorporates art. Every good design has to be aesthetically appealing,” asserts STEAM Lab teacher Beth Topinka. “It makes the lab happier having the A in STEAM.”

At The Learning Community in Black Mountain, North Carolina, students collected, sorted, and measured leaves as they learned about patterns, graphing, proportions, and analyzing and interpreting data. Photo courtesy of Melissa Wilson.

For instance, one STEAM Lab project challenges Topinka’s fourth-grade students to design “mountainside mouse motels” after studying erosion and natural hazards. “Students did real angle measurements of the hillside, then designed a motel for a mouse,” she explains. After making risk assessment maps, students received differing material budgets based on their locations’ erosion risks. The assignment also called for students to come up with ways to promote their motels. Topinka monitored the weather forecast, and when rain was expected, had students install their motels, with a container inside to catch and measure water, on the hillside.

Topinka also has coordinated with colleagues to apply what students learn in her lab to other classes. After noting that “these little motels take a pounding,” the language arts teacher created a natural disaster reporting assignment. Topinka also works with the art teacher to make sure students develop the sketching skills they need.

“With my third graders, it was teaching them about sketching for scientific accuracy,” she recalls. The students reviewed the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as Notable Notebooks: Scientists and Their Writings by Jessica Fries-Gaither to “emphasize the importance of sketching by hand. If you snap a pic, you’re not looking, analyzing, observing” as closely, Topinka contends. “Those artistic sensibilities and detailed observational skills come more into play when sketching than by taking photos.”

When she adds art to a lesson, “kids who don’t feel like they’re science and math kids really like it. It feels a little bit more accessible,” explains Melissa Wilson, math and science teacher at The Learning Community, a K–8 experiential learning school in Black Mountain, North Carolina. When her seventh- and eighth-grade students were learning about scale, “the math curricula had a lot of taking an object and scaling it down. I thought, ‘Where do we use scale?’…I realized we could study da Vinci’s work as an artist and scientist and incorporate scale. Students looked at Vitruvian Man in art [class], then took those ratios and proportions and applied them to themselves. We used those ratios to do scatterplots in math. In science, we went outside and looked for ratios and proportions in leaves, sunflowers.”

Wilson’s fifth- and sixth-grade students studied Rube Goldberg comics before sketching and building their own devices. She says the experience was a lesson for her as well. “I was hoping they’d learn engineering, force and energy, a lot of math,” she recalls. “I learned, though, that I needed to put grit and resilience on the rubric. Because the machines had an end task, there were so many trials” as students learned why they shouldn’t manipulate multiple variables at one time.

She adds, “By starting with art, I hooked the artist students. It’s a way to get a higher level of engagement as well.

At San Francisco’s Town School for Boys, Lower School STEM teacher Jessica Boualavong meets before the school year starts with colleagues to discuss the main themes they will each cover during the school year. “We try to find one unit of collaboration in each grade…Our units are not STEAM in one classroom; they’re more STEAM-collaboration,” she says. When the fourth graders were studying ecosystems in STEM, they learned about the anatomy and life cycle of coral, knowing they would be using what they learned to make coral models in art class. In art class, they also learned about clay—from how pigments change when the clay is fired to techniques to add texture to a clay surface.

Boualavong and the art teachers assess the models separately. “On my side, it’s about scientific accuracy. Are they including accurate representations of different types of coral? Is the design appropriate to scale? In some activities, there is a labeling component,” she explains. She also aligned her assessments with the science and engineering practices of the Next Generation Science Standards. “It’s one way to vary my projects from year to year, and to keep skills consistent as they move through the grades.”

Timing is one of the “trickiest things,” she observes. “I’m moving at a pace based on student progress…and I’m trying to sync my schedule with the art department’s schedule. We have to decide if they’re learning the science first or the art first. I like to pop into the art studio when they’re starting a STEAM project to answer questions. The art teachers also visit the STEM lab.”

Boualavong appreciates the support of the art teachers as they also hold students accountable for developing skills. “Kids understand they’re building skills and those skills overlap in different areas.” she says.

Seth Hodges, a physical science teacher at Adna Middle/High School in Chehalis, Washington, began incorporating engineering into physical science lessons more than 10 years ago. Inspired by his own physics teacher years earlier, he began assigning his ninth-grade students to design Goldberg-type devices, which naturally led to discussions of perspective and scale.

“I tell them perspective is about looking at it in two dimensions and how to get it looking like three dimensions,” he explains. “I want students to learn how to evaluate things. I have juniors and seniors, who did the drawings themselves in ninth grade, evaluate [anonymously] the [ninth graders’] drawings for perspective and scale.”

Hodges likes to “surreptitiously slide” art into his lessons. “Kids have preconceived notions about what science class is like,” he says. He tries to disrupt those ideas by having students create skits about rules and sharing illustrations from Grey’s Anatomy as examples of “all the kinds of different things they can do here…Kids [come to appreciate] that there’s a lot more to my class than ‘just’ science.”

This year, Hodges started teaching a course on the physics of sound. “One of the main projects is kids have to build a musical instrument…We’re incorporating art and the visual process in designs of musical instrument process,” he explains, adding the instruments will not only have to produce sound, but they also will have to resemble something someone would want to play.

“I find that when we do incorporate artistic things into the classroom, I get a very good response from students. It’s not always art; sometimes things from [physical education] class. I’m always trying to find what else I can bring into my classroom to maybe reach the students,” Hodges concludes.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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