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The STEAM-y Approach to Science and Art

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My first introduction to science education was through my father, who has been a NASA employee for over 35 years. He works in education and outreach for the agency which focuses on many things including the encouragement of young people to connect with science and math. I didn’t really start to care about my dad’s job until I learned about how NASA was attempting to change their model of science education STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) to include an “A” for Arts. This addition allowed for an increase in creativity regarding science teaching methods, helped develop an understanding of how science can affect artistic training, and through that, a respect for the arts as an integral part of ones essential primary learning.

One teacher who is excelling at using the STEAM model is Taoufik Nadji from Interlochen Arts Academy (IAA) in Northern Michigan. Interlochen Arts Academy is a highly rigorous performing arts high school in all artistic disciplines including violin, theater arts, design, motion picture arts, and jazz performance. In a recent Forbes article a former student of Mr. Nadji’s, Cate Scott Campbell and IAA alum, got together her old professor to talk about the methods he deploys to teach science at an arts school. One of the successes he notes is that when he took away the text book and allowed students to grapple with the work head on, he saw higher results in their retention. When teaching his physics class he noted that most of the students in the class had already completed their science and math requirements and where genuinely interested in learning about physics and because of that he was able to create an unconventional learning experiences. “He started by devising curricula that was more hands-on and arts-related: using dance majors to demonstrate torque through ballet positions like arabesques; incorporating creative writing quizzes to demonstrate understanding; and having students build a musical instrument from scratch for their final project, while writing a paper that explains the concepts they experienced, like frequency, heat transference, sound waves, resonance, and harmonics.” This sort of creativity is essential for young artists to start feeling the power of an interdisciplinary education. There is so much potential in the ways in which artists can benefit from seeing their skills as essential to a seemingly foreign field. I believe that the work of Mr. Nadji is both eye-opening and groundbreaking in the way that it inherently has a respect for an artistic approach as valuable.

In a HowlRound article written by Jithesh Kuyyalil called “Acting Concepts Through the Lens of Physics” he notes on his experience as a trained physicist and the move that it took for him to get to New York. He goes into to detail to describe his experience making the move from science to acting and draws many similarities: “Overall, what I’ve learned is that an actor evolves from point to point. He needs to be at one point and trust each point without bothering about the climax, which happens as a consequence of the trajectory he takes. He can be as uninteresting as a baseball traveling in a straight line, or as fascinating as weather changing, which is chaotic system. Instead of standing in my way, physics gives me an added layer of imagination to understand acting concepts and how to apply them in my work. I believe that this perspective is useful for students from other backgrounds, particularly science.” Kuyyalil’s observation touches on the idea that math and art are not so far apart and intact the practical way in which a physic problem is solved may in fact be useful for the actor. He is spot on in saying that his work is just another process of nature: “It helps one to treat acting as any other physical process happening in nature rather than some abstract, complex, or ambiguous process.” This quote is the perfect example of an approach to acting that is not born of ego but rather, trust. The idea that the acting work we go come from a deep place of understanding in the self and the world around us, just like a physicist.

It is important to note that the acronym STEAM was first created on the side of science and math education to make sure that it was not become an isolated field where an individual either had to be a math/science person or an arts/literature person. STEAM introduced the idea that both can live in a symbiotic relationship. It was not properly coined until a couple of years ago but individuals have been using these combined skills to promote well rounded careers.

I think part of the puzzle is recognizing the inherent curiosity that both of these fields rely on. Science and the arts attract individuals who desperately want to explore the unknown and feed off the idea that there is always more depth to discover. These fields are valuable to one another in a way that not many schools are taking advantage of. I think it it imperative that cross disciplinary learning is at the forefront of out education and that theater and science do not discount one another.

For more reading about STEAM education please see below:
http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/discovery/impact_of_discovery.asp
http://www.thompsonschools.org/domain/3295

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