From Pumpkins to Pendulums: Principles of teaching STEAM
By Dolores Bartholomew, Professor at Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts & Philadelphia University
Having been a practicing scientist, I have had the pleasure of learning about the nature of plants and their biological mechanisms that govern how they grow, develop, and respond to changes in nutrient status and the environment under both normal and stress conditions. Today I work as a professional artist, run a small arts business that includes STEAM K - 3rd-grade workshops, and I am an adjunct professor teaching science at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and Philadelphia University (PhilaU). My life has been a conglomeration of learning, living, and working in both fields of art and science. And for this special issue of SciArt Magazine, I will detail my choice as an educator to teach STEAM rather than STEM in schools at all levels and how much more of an enriching experience it is for everyone involved.
Part I: Creating the STEAM Project for K - 3rd Grade In my analysis of STEAM projects by others, I have been disappointed to see cursory indications of the science concepts that the art is supposed to teach the student. This deficiency is crucial to address, as the experimental aspects that scientists use within their work is also a component of art which can be demonstrated as such. Additionally, connections may be made on multiple levels including scientific terminology, methods, and concepts. Hence, in creating my STEAM projects, I relate it to STEM with real STEM terms and activities. And while I have several different workshops, each with different aims, there are some guiding principles that I have learned that enhance my effort in mixing science with art and result in teaching STEM concepts more thoroughly within a STEAM project.
While I have a Ph.D., teachers tend to introduce me to their elementary class as an artist and ignore mentioning my scientific background. Initially annoyed by this, I have come to appreciate unexpected results of this classification. The students are not immediately burdened by thoughts of incompetency in art (as they may be for science), so they find me approachable. As we progress through the “art" project, I reveal that I have a Ph.D. in science and explain some of the research that I have done. When I point out the science they have been learning in the art project they are amazed and surprised that they, "as artists," are using science and math to create their work.
Importantly, these projects feel natural and fun to younger students. I believe this point (having fun) is the most important as it the one that starts the internalization process of the idea that STEM subjects are fundamentally enjoyable and accessible. It helps to establish interest to pursue STEM subjects throughout their academic lives. Therefore, what I observe which contributes to making STEM subjects to these students agreeable is that they were looking at STEM through the lens of art and engaged the creative process and involved a larger part of the brain. Other scientists such as Arne Dietrich and John Medina further explain how this works and they report on the aspects of teaching that activate multiple centers of the brain which enhance its capacity for learning and creativity. Thus, precisely what this suggests is that whenever art is employed, it utilizes more areas of the brain which aids absorbing and processing ideas and making connections among them. Potentially this leads to developing a new and deeper understanding that results in the coveted "ah ha" moment.
Additionally, the value of incorporating the multi-disciplinary creative processes of the mind is that it also provides connection to the brain's reward centers both by giving meaning to an event or idea and as an emotional connector for the student becomes a self-perpetuating positive and reinforcing narrative for them. The act of seeking out a reward is a potent motivator when connected to positive memories and emotional links. It results in the desire to repeat the activity that provided the reward, which results in individuals seeking out more activities giving rise to further interest in combining both disciplines. This confirms that the existence of the intimate connections may be made between the seemingly disparate activities of art and science.
When I develop a project, I have two primary drivers for its development. The project deals with a current topic and issues relating to them, for example, climate change, pollution of the ocean by plastics, bullying, the importance of communication for scientific advancement. I also have a goal for the artwork; this often provides the framework of the project and the type of science to be covered. Hence, I look for contests and art shows to enter my class into or use an upcoming holiday in which the art maybe a gift for someone. Doing this creates the emotional content that heightens enthusiasm for the project. Additionally, the hands-on aspects of the project result in employment of the senses which contributes to the learning experience and provides a real life-learning connection.
Pumpkin Project I have a young student workshop that works on learning what empathy is and teaching recognition of feelings both visually and verbally. This workshop is tied to Halloween, as the holiday evokes a variety of feelings both positive and negative. The project consists of making a T-shirt that has a pumpkin-shaped chalkboard area and a speech bubble that they use and can wear on Halloween. The students, after a few lessons on recognizing facial expressions and the feelings associated with them, then draw different expressions on the pumpkin as they feel them and write the word in the speech bubble that the expression is linked to. This activity is used as a platform for teaching an understanding of what bullying is, and is also the point at which plant science is taught. To accomplish this, I proceed to use most or all of the following aspects that I have learned contribute to a successful STEAM project:
(I) There is a discussion of the topical issues through readings and videos on relating topics, which may be covered on both the art and science levels. I also introduce work of several artists and show what their work is saying or doing relating to the issue. I will also point out scientist's working on the issue and what their research is suggesting about it. For example, in defining empathy, I start with explaining what the motto "to stand in someone else's shoes" means through work by artists who try to communicate this experience, in particular relating to bullying.
(II) The art project is then developed as a learning activity in which students will learn some science to be able to create the final work, so if the project involves drawing pumpkins, the students will look at some real pumpkins, learn parts of a plant, and what part the pumpkin is. I will read a story about planting a pumpkin seed and the seed's growth. They will learn about different varieties of pumpkins and how they have used and the science of why they are used for one purpose over another.
(III) Then comes a scientific activity in the form of experiments that will include generating hypotheses, making observations, and recording them. In following the pumpkin thread, students may germinate seeds and observe the process over the course of the project, recording their observations on the growth and measuring the change in length of the emerging root and stem. I will discuss how individuals also grow emotionally and that we can learn how to control and understand our emotions. Students will calculate the rate of growth and compare for different seed types, and make a graph with the data. This helps them to learn that visual analysis is essential in science and art, whether trying to determine growth rates or evoke emotions through expression.
(IV) I send homework for them to do to enhance the science and art lesson to generate discussion both at home and for the next workshop. In the Halloween T-shirt project, I send the class home with several pages containing blank pumpkin faces on them that they use to visually monitor their feelings by drawing their facial expressions with the aid of a mirror. They are also instructed to pick a member of their family and observe their facial appearance and hypothesize what feeling went with that expression and to write that down. This process teaches methods of observation and methodical note-keeping for artistic and scientific purposes.
(V) Finally, I will incorporate teaching aspects of art and design to help the students create their art and try to teach new art techniques, sometimes using the newest product in the arts or crafts market.
Using this combination of learning tools and activities as my method has yielded a variety of different workshops, each with excellent results. Evidence as such comes in the form of thank-you letters from the students that not only say that they had fun, but also that they never knew pumpkins were a fruit, or how involved of a process creating a T-shirt design or seed germination is. Parents often positively respond to my providing their children with a discussion opportunity about feelings, and learning how to do an experiment at home easily with their child. Teachers often ask me to come back with another project. But the best actual evidence for the success of these STEAM activities is from the random hugs that the students give when I come in the room and squeals of joy when I tell them what science and art they are going to learn this time. Such unbridled enthusiasm is wonderful to see from students who began with little to no enthusiasm for science.
Part II: Developing STEAM projects for College Courses As an adjunct professor, to enhance the learning experience of the undergraduates at PAFA and PhilaU, I have created various opportunities in and out of the classroom to experience “real life” science, in which an arts-based project is assigned out of the experience and their new found knowledge.
For my Topics in Science Class at PAFA, we visit scientists in their labs to enable a cross-disciplinary approach in the class to emerge. As such, the students taking the class have had the opportunity to see first-hand aspects of scientific research and the scientist's experience as an investigator of the natural realm. For the art student, this is a high-value learning experience and provides them with potential contacts if they are interested in pursuing the SciArt genre. Further, I have used a similar process, and principles in creating the course, which covers a broad range of science from the physical to the biological sciences, as I have in creating my STEAM workshops. Due to the wide variety of science topics covered I select an overall scientific theme, such as “light" or "time” to help focus the scientific and artistic learning aims for study. David Edwards takes a similar approach of thematic learning to focus his engineering class as described in his book The Lab. The artwork results are displayed at the end of the year in a "Topics in Science" art exhibit which includes up to three works by each student. Additionally, if there are gallery calls for SciArt, I will also include that as part of the artistic goal to submit their work for consideration in the exhibits.
Utilizing the “time” theme for my PAFA course, we did the following activity to connect physics concepts with art:
(I) The significance of measuring time accurately and the technological advances that precede advances in science is covered and the historical importance of the discovery of the pendulum discussed. Accompanying this experiments studying the principals of physics that govern the swing of a pendulum are conducted. The students test various conditions including whether the substance used to fill a bob will affect any of the conditions controlling the period of the pendulum's swing and they write a lab report based on their results.
(II) In learning that the length of the string affects the period of the pendulum. We created a three-foot-long pendulum and a 15-foot-long pendulum with bobs filled with paint, and created a work that would tie together several aspects about physics and time. This included assembling the canvas to form a giant puzzle, inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s equating scientists to puzzle solvers. To represent that the nature of collaboration that scientists use for scientific progress, the canvases were painted individually with the small pendulum by each artist, and then they were assembled to be painted by the large pendulum. In our assembly, we left gaps in the puzzle to represent gaps in our knowledge in physics.
(III) We also included sand as a medium as "paint" to represent the matter of space, and mixed paint with glow-in-the-dark paint to represent light and the strange aspects it possesses relative to time. These constituted as art “experiments.”
(IV) The artwork was submitted for consideration for a juried show and was accepted along with another similar collaborative work that I created with the artists of the Howard Pyle Studio in Wilmington, DE.
From the "Topics in Science" art exhibit. Images courtesy of the author.
Another feature of our visits to other labs inspired the development of a collaboration between members of the Gallagher Lab (at the University of Pennsylvania), myself, and my PAFA students, to generate a public outreach project which combines the science of the lab with art. The goal is to create an engaging, cross-disciplinary exhibition that increases the public's interest, enthusiasm, and support for scientific research and SciArt in general. Toward that end, working with the scientists, together we have devised several science-centered artworks and displays that either incorporate materials that researchers use for their study or are influenced by their research results and data.
Meanwhile at PhilaU, because a botany class that I teach consists of non-major students, I have created a project I call "Botany in Your Field" that requires the students to look for ideas on how to introduce a novel use of botany in their respective field. They create a prototype example for their idea, and are encouraged to expand the benefits of botany into other non-science areas. In a genetics lab that I also teach, I have held the “Jello and Pasta Challenge” in which students create a mold depicting a stage of mitosis or meiosis.
In summary, with regards to the use of STEAM in my adjunct teaching, I find that the primary method and principles I have devised for creating STEAM activities and projects work as well as they have for younger students. However, in this case, I start with the science and carry it over to the art. Additionally, the students do more outside reading of scientifically advanced papers and spend more time visiting with scientists and learning first-hand about their work.
While debates may exist on whether the arts should be supported and integrated with the sciences, in my experience taken together with current findings in the brain research literature, there is overwhelming evidence that they should not be taught mutually exclusive of each but taught mutually inclusive of each other.
Dolores Bartholomew takes on the role of “intersecting experimentalist” and works on connecting ideas of different spheres as a source of innovation and inspiration. She loves collaborating with others in both science and art and the rewarding friendships that result.
As founder of Meanings of the Heart Art LLC, she merges the science of the effect of the image on memory and learning into works of fine art to help families, and others evoke good feelings and promote positive social values. Further, she develops STEAM based workshops for teachers and other thought leaders. Visit her website at: meaningsoftheheartart.com to learn more.
Before establishing her company, Dolores pursued research in plant science. While funded by a European Community grant she acted as an “intersecting experimentalist” between labs doing plant research in Italy, France, Germany, and the U.K. Back in the USA, she served as a scientific liaison between DuPont and the University of Pennsylvania.Her newest work as an “intersecting experimentalist,” includes teaching as an adjunct professor in the Liberal Arts Department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an adjunct professor in the Biology Department at Philadelphia University.