Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Artsy science: what about sciency art, IV

An article in this week's Education Week entitled  "Building STEAM: Blending the Arts With STEM Subjects couldn't help but grab my attention. Here's the opener:

The acronym STEM—shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—has quickly taken hold in education policy circles, but some experts in the arts community and beyond suggest it may be missing another initial to make the combination more powerful. The idea? Move from STEM to STEAM, with an A for the arts.
The actual term "STEAM," author Erik Robelin admits, may not catch on; but there are buzzwords aplenty to buttress it:
...momentum appears to be mounting to explore ways that the intersection of the arts with the STEM fields can enhance student engagement and learning, and even help unlock creative thinking and innovation.
One core idea ...STEAM advocates emphasize is that the arts hold great potential to foster creativity and new ways of thinking that can help unleash STEM innovation.
“There is creativity in STEM itself, super genius in it, ... but in arts education, it really is the raison d’etre to be out of the box, to accept the chaos,” said John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence.
Artists and designers, he said, are “risk takers, they can think around corners.”
Carrie Fitzsimmons, the executive director of ArtScience Labs, the Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that manages the ArtScience Prize. “It’s all fun, experiential learning, but we’re teaching them to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers.”
Naturally, Robelin doesn't interview any actual scientists on whether boosting scientific creativity and student engagement in science depends on the arts.  He does reference, however:
a 2008 study led by Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University, which found that Nobel laureates in the sciences were 22 times more likely than scientists in general to be involved in the performing arts.
And, he adds:
Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist. And then there’s the Renaissance figure who some view as the personification of STEAM: Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian painter and sculptor who also made a name for himself as a scientist, engineer, and inventor.
Specific examples of STEAM include the following:
Through art-making projects, students at one [Philadelphia] school manipulated the abstract concepts underlying fractions for a more concrete understanding of how they work. The students even created a “fraction mural” displayed at the school.

...performing artists in theater, music, dance, and puppetry working alongside classroom teachers in preschool and kindergarten settings.

[A team of students] creating public art installations that communicate how people around the world struggle to gain access to fresh water.

...watercolor paintings of cells...."beautiful artistic renderings, and students could pick out the structures that they had been studying."
A number of highly enthusiastic non-scientists are quoted, including Karen Childress-Evans, the San Diego school district’s director of visual and performing arts; Jenny Montgomery, an art teacher at the Dayton Regional STEM School (quoted above in reference to the watercolors); Harvey Seifter, an expert in arts-based learning; and U.S. Rep. James Langevin (D. Rhode Island), who:
introduced a House resolution to highlight how “the innovative practices of art and design play an essential role in improving STEM education and advancing STEM research.” 
Less enthusiastic are the scientists, whose comments are buried in the dead center of the article: Alan J. Friedman, a former head of the New York Hall of Science, who holds a doctorate in physics, and Susan Singer, a Carleton College biology professor. Says Friedman:
"They [art and science] also have some very essential differences that are at the core of what they are, which is why I have trouble with STEAM.”
The scientists may also be more troubled than the non-scientists are by the lack of STEAM-supporting data:
“There is no question, to me, the critical missing piece is the data,” said Mr. Seifter. He adds that even as he’s witnessed the power of the intersection, he sees a critical need for a “solid body of empirical knowledge about what the arts bring to the STEM equation.”

Indeed, research examining the effect of arts integration on student achievement across disciplines appears to show mixed results.
But there are plenty of funds for the fishing expeditions that will secure for the Powers that Be the data they know must be out there:
The NSF has provided research grants and underwritten a number of conferences and workshops around the nation this year.
One advocate of the STEM to STEAM push is Harvey Seifter, the director of the Art of Science Learning, a project financed by an NSF grant that organized three conferences last spring in Washington, Chicago, and San Diego that brought together scientists, artists, and researchers, as well as educators, business leaders, and policymakers to explore how the arts can be engaged to strengthen STEM learning and skills and produce a more creative American workforce.
The Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, with support from a $1.1 million Education Department grant, is working with city schools to help elementary students better understand abstract concepts in science and mathematics, such as fractions and geometric shapes, through art-making projects.
In California, a $1.1 million grant last year by the state’s Postsecondary Education Commission, using federal teacher-quality aid, is supporting the 134,000-student San Diego school district’s work linking the arts with science in grades 3-5.
The data is surely just around the corner, even if it's mostly not about academic achievement. For example, the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership has a four-year grant from the Education Department’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination program which includes:
an “intense research component” and will look at a variety of effects, including student test scores, suspensions, and unexcused absences, as well as parent engagement in homework and changes in teaching practices.
Even some of the non-scientists, however, have their reservations about STEAM.  Here, again, is Karen Childress-Evans:
“It’s not just teaching science through the arts, but teaching science and the arts together, and what comes from that is more than either of them standing alone.”
And here, again, is Jenny Montgomery:
At the same time, Ms. Montgomery said, even in a STEM school, it’s important for art not simply to be valued for its application to other disciplines.

“I also uphold the value of making art for art’s sake,” she said, “that students have an opportunity just to engage in art for the sheer joy of it.”
And science for science's sake? Or using science in art class? None of these folks seem to notice, or care, that the latter is nonexistent, and that the former has been receding from our classrooms for years now. Perhaps if the Erik Robelen had interviewed a few more scientists, and not buried their words in the dead center of his article, this issue would have surfaced. But if you once again follow the money, taking a look at the article's acknowledgements, you see why it doesn't:
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts education is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
Is there no Power that Be out there interested funding coverage of, and research on science for science's sake?


TerriW said...

You know, scientists often need to communicate with one another via written or oral methods (let's call it "Language Arts"), and it would be very powerful if schools could somehow incorporate this into their STEAM training. We could call it LASTEAM.

Wouldn't that be great? It would be an education with specific focus on Language Arts, Science, Technology, Art and Math!

Hmm. But you know, scientists often have to communicate with colleagues in other countries, it would be so powerful if we added a specific focus on foreign language, too. We could call it FLASTEAM!

But, wait! I have read that regular exercise allows people to think more clearly, perhaps if were to add some sort of fitness training -- let's call it Gym -- that would really intensify the synergy. Let us call it: FLAGSTEAM!

Amy P said...


That was pretty good.

This is such a transparent attempt to horn in on a trendy source of funding.

jtidwell said...

I'm so tempted to create a set of short courses or lectures about the science of visual design. Because there really is a lot of interesting left-brain material there -- perception science, color theory, typography, layout grids and proportions, visual hierarchy, perspective, and more.

Speaking for myself, learning this stuff made art and design much more interesting to me. It gave them more intellectual depth and less airy-fairy "only artists can do this" mystique.

If they're gonna drag art into my science, I'm gonna drag science into their art. :-)