5 Tips When STEMifying an Art Activity

Thank you to guest blogger, Yvonne Ng - STEM educator and author of the Engineer's Playground blog - for sharing thoughts from her recent time spent working with COMPAS Creative Classroom teaching artists!

I just finished a lovely stint working with COMPAS artists as they designed new residencies for COMPAS’ STEM+Art project, a part of the Creative Classroom program. This project was funded by a grant COMPAS received from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Artists went into classrooms with arts residencies that were related to science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM). While some artists were new to STEM/Art activities, others were veterans. But with all, these tips seemed to be useful.

1. Avoid being a handmaid

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

Math folks I talk with complain that the STEM world treats them as “a handmaid to science” that math is useful to scientists, but STEM doesn’t seem to appreciate what it means to “do math.” Sometimes I see artists fall into a similar situation. It can be tempting to create a STEM activity where their art is the vehicle to communicate about STEM, allowing their activity to concentrate only on the base artistic skills needed to create a particular product rather than allowing students to experience and understand the creative process of their art. Don’t do it! After working with the artists, we found great ways to help students have a deep appreciation of the art experience while developing the STEM within that experience.

For example, John Akre, videographer, described the process of stop-motion animation. Because the camera position and zoom remains constant, students had to vary their puppet sizes to create the effects they wanted. I asked if it would help to deliberately have students experiment with the effect different sized puppets had on the animation and notice the trends that would give them the effect they wanted (e.g. making them bigger gave close-ups and smaller was a “zoom out” effect). You can see the students' work, and a video about the process here.

Observation, experimentation, and finding patterns are at the heart of science and math. Students would develop skills and dispositions for these areas because they wanted to create amazing art.

2. Avoid giving pat answers

On the one side, I assured the artists that they don’t need to explain the STEM concepts to the level that the teachers or the standards require. On the other hand, giving a pat answer may oversimplify the understanding of the depth that teachers may want to get to in the subject. Instead, we discuss where their work intersects with the subject matter so the artist can suggest to students, “You know, if you like this, listen up in your (science, math, STEM) class.” This builds a connection between the artist and the teacher, the art and the STEM, and whets the kids’ appetite to learn more.

Ross Sutter, musician, said it brilliantly after our session. To paraphrase him, he realized it was not his job to teach the kids all about the science of sound. It was his job to create the “wonderment” for the STEM classes so teachers could leverage that when they taught the relevant topics.

Art can give students a purpose for learning the STEM material: to make better art!

3. Share your expertise

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

Though artists shouldn’t feel they need to be experts in STEM, I remind them that they are experts! We find that a lot of “technology” overlaps with their knowledge of materials and tools. A lot of their “practices” (we called them “tricks of the trade”) actually are similar to different STEM practices. Traits they developed in refining their art are similar to those required for STEM. Some of the kids will love what the artists do, and the artist can show them how these can help in STEM classes. Or some kids will see themselves as STEM, not “art” folks, and the artist can show how, maybe, they are.

While working with Kelly Meister, digital storyteller, and Heidi Jeub, bookmaker, we found that more explicit use of the engineering design practice could help students develop great pieces within the time constraints they faced. We discussed “forcing” students to create a “quick and dirty” prototype in a seemingly short period of time. This allows them to practice the basics of digital storytelling and bookmaking by making a small-scale, complete product. Students then know enough to start having their own visions of what they could do and how they could improve upon this basic product. The artist then moves to more of an expert consultant role than an instructor.

When I teach engineering, this is the best method I know of to give students the confidence, space, and time to come up with really creative work. This idea of “make it work before you make it better” is practiced by the most expert of artists but is also a practice of the most successful engineers.

4. Honor your art

This relates to the first tip. But when I consult with artists, we really dig down. I ask what gives them the chills in doing their art? Working with kids to do their art? Then as I learn about their process, we see the connections to STEM emerge. It’s much more enriching to STEMify this way (for me and for them), and I usually see a spark and new excitement about the upcoming activity. I remind them, remember to make really good art!

I asked Mike Hazard, videographer and documentary maker, about his process. He explained that the interview is his first key step. As he talked about one of his subjects, he explained how the person’s stories or gestures gave him ideas for the objects and pictures he selected for his video or the words he used in the voiceover.

I realized his observation process brought him to the subject’s natural environment, similar to what a scientist does, and had him search for attributes to describe and distinguish it from others. These are key practices of a scientist as well.

5. Shine a light

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

Photo by Shelly Kryzer

So, by doing authentic, real art, the COMPAS artists enlighten kids about the connections with STEM as well as history, current events, etc. They also develop dispositions, traits, habits, skills, and practices that are used in STEM, and why they are important in art. And that art can make the kids’ STEM better, and vice versa.

Gita Ghei, 3D artist and metal-worker, was asked to create garden ornaments with the students and so decided to lead them through creating Caulder mobiles. We used the STEMify process to identify the skills that the Caulder mobiles could develope such as material properties, manufacturing methods for those materials, the science and math of levers, and the science of oxidation (patina, rust) and how that may affect material selection. She had great ties to recycling, the St. Paul Cathedral and Statue of Liberty restoration, and fishing. We then came up with ideas that could allow mobiles to be used in the garden, as well as some other ways metalworking could be used as ornaments. We explored spinning options (like pinwheels) and finding swivels, plastic bushings, and metal rods from suppliers such as McMasterCarr.

Great art naturally develops a broad set of skills and artists can do many things, including STEM.