Incorporating the arts into STEM

To increase STEM interest and achievements throughout the state, the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council was developed in 2011 and is made up of leaders in higher education and business, pre-K through 12th-grade educators, and state and local government officials. The STEM council is led by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Kemin Industries President and CEO Chris Nelson. There are 47 members on the STEM council, including 17 members who make up the Executive Committee.

Steve Triplett, director of STEM Client Partnerships, has been on the STEM Advisory Council since its inception. He’s also a retired school administrator who married an instrumental music teacher. He and a group of others studied how the STEM Council could support arts in Iowa around creativity, design and communication. “Now, for groups to get approval for STEM Best, their work needs to integrate the arts,” he said.

The STEM to STEAM initiative, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is supported by teachers, researchers, policymakers, students and businesspeople from RISD and beyond. At the heart of the activity, a team of student research assistants works in the Office of Government Relations to apply their firsthand knowledge of art and design education to exploring new avenues for STEM to STEAM. (STEAM adds art and design to the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.)

Turnaround Arts: Des Moines

Incorporating arts into STEM work is part of the Turnaround Arts: Des Moines program.

“We work in five schools on the north side of Des Moines: Harding Middle School and four of its feeder elementary schools — Cattell, Findley, Oak Park and Madison,” said Sarah Dougherty, visual arts curriculum coordinator at Turnaround Arts: Des Moines. “Findley was one of eight national pilot schools, and their initial success led to this expansion. These schools use arts experiences to engage students in learning all content areas, including STEM, (and to) engage teachers in ambitious and constructivist arts-based teaching strategies and engage families and communities in responsive and inviting experiences in the school through the arts.”

Through the program, she said she sees kids connecting more personally with math and science content. “It is all about creative problem solving, and so the connections are deep and key. When a student uses their body to dance the water cycle, the understanding is deeper. When students create art based on the golden ratio, that abstract concept not only becomes real, they get to control how it is expressed. It makes learning personal. It gives kids agency in their own learning experience.”

She said arts are how we apply learning and our thinking as a result of learning. “The arts are at the root of what makes us human beings. The arts are the way we process, react and respond to all other stimuli — science, math, social justice, our own thoughts and the actions of our neighbors. It gives all experiences context and all students a voice. The arts are important to education because without context and reflection, all other learning is disconnected.”

Dougherty’s background includes both the arts and sciences, and includes a degree in biological and pre-medical illustration from Iowa State University. “I think that is why I am dedicated to this kind of work; it has enriched and informed my own learning for as long as I can remember,” she said. “My passion has been and continues to be providing students with the most authentic opportunities for learning through the arts. I love all of the words of Elliot Eisner, but this drives my work: Schools should not be boot camps for learning how to make a living, but should be places for learning how to make a life.”

As for the future of the program, she said it looks positive. “Over the next few years, we hope to cultivate deeper local partnerships to help really anchor programming to the needs and assets of our community here in Des Moines. This isn’t a Band-Aid program; real change takes time, practice and monitoring. The future for Turnaround Arts: Des Moines means continuous improvement and learning as we get better at serving kids and our community.”

Science Center of Iowa

At the Science Center of Iowa, Renee Shull Harmon, vice president of science learning, said they have a difficult time separating art and science.

“They are naturally intertwined and undiscernible from each other in many respects. At their core, they are both systems that humans have developed to explore, experience and understand the world we live in. They both tap into our inquisitive nature and our desire to make sense of, and meaning for, ourselves and our human experience in this wondrous universe. Both require creativity, discipline, innovation and communicating complex ideas to be successful. And when they are seamlessly integrated and excellently executed, they are sublime.”

Scientists, potters, technologists, researchers, painters, engineers, and nano-sculptors are all working, in their own way, with tools that assist their vision, to discover, create and invent ideas and objects that improve our lives or help us gain new perspectives of the many complexities that make our worlds come to life, she said.

The Science Center finds ways to integrate STEAM into different aspects of programming. As an organization focused on engaging and inspiring Iowans along their journey of lifelong science learning, it is committed to incorporating the arts into the exploration and development of projects during camp experience, through trial and error of experiments with its preschool students and most recently incorporating the arts into the new exhibit, Wild Music.

“Wild Music explores the evidence for the biological origins of music, allowing visitors not only to hear the music that surrounds them every day but they will see and even feel it. The exhibit opened on Oct. 1, 2016, and will go through May 29, 2017. This is a great opportunity to connect the world around us with the art of sound through the interactive experience.”

In 2015, the Science Center of Iowa unveiled its Making STEM Connections program, which provides curriculum, resources and tools for libraries, museums and schools to build the “makers” mindset in youth. “This is the ultimate example of STEAM,” Harmon said.