Hand models, carnivorous plants, and other ways to gain STEAM

Brenda Major and Lynn Williams

Brenda Major (pictured left) and Lynn Williams (pictured right) have been teaching art to K-8th grade students at High Meadows School for more than 16 years. They combine experience in marketing, graphic design, technology, fine arts, teaching and learning for an expanded perspective of art as core to a quality education. Brenda and Lynn serve on the High Meadows Innovation Leadership Team, with the goal of empowering both teachers and students to engage more deeply with all subject matter through arts integration.

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Students listen and providing feedback on plans for their Bio-engineered Carnivorous Plant designs to control mosquitoes. // Images courtesy of author. Students listen and providing feedback on plans for their Bio-engineered Carnivorous Plant designs to control mosquitoes. // Images courtesy of author.

The popularity and push for STEM learning is gathering STEAM, as educators increasingly recognise the power of integrating Art with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths curricula. This approach recognises Art as core to the development of creativity and thinking skills critical to problem-solving. The art programme here at High Meadows School - a progressive, independent, international Baccalaureate (IB) school - supports inquiry-based learning that departs from a siloed approach.

Here, Art is taught within programmes of inquiry through natural connections, providing experiential and creative ways to apply and “Could they paint with popsicles? No!”test concepts, while teaching skills that enhance learning for all subjects.

Students in Pre-K through eighth grade experience the “A” in STEAM through two approaches: Art classroom experiences designed to purposefully integrate disciplines, and STEAM labs brought into classrooms that approach academic subjects through an artistic lens.

Whether exploring states of matter through art materials or recreating masks to understand ancient cultures, students learn how to problem-solve, respectfully critique others’ work and their own, and identify universal connections. Here are examples of this approach in action:

1. Unified Teacher Team

Art teachers mine the programme of inquiry for opportunities to connect art across disciplines, meeting every six weeks with grade level teachers to discuss those opportunities. We plan, exchange ideas and share resources, working together to take advantage of the efficacy of varied approaches to learning. Capitalising on natural connections reinforces learning by creating multiple touchpoints for key concepts.

For example, when learning about states of matter in their classroom, Pre-K students turned water into steam. Art teachers followed with a STEAM lab that explored water as a solid. Could they paint with popsicles? No! Students recognised temperature was the agent of change, as frozen paint pops went from a solid to a liquid once out of the freezer. Teachers open to working collaboratively in each other’s spaces reinforce the natural integration of disciplines through exchange of perspectives and shared language. It’s a powerful message to students that everything is connected.

2. Firsthand Discovery

Kindergarteners and first graders connected ceramics to weather by making pinch pot wind chimes. They learned that wind chimes are engineered to work with the wind to create sound. Learning about clay skills and tools led to incorporation of naturally connected scientific principles. Students discussed how properties of materials and the size and shape of components can create different sounds. After assembling, students tested the wind chimes for sound quality and decided how to group them in the garden. Rather than learning through books or lectures, these experiential, multi-sensory lessons have greater, long-lasting impact.

A ceramic weaving piece - integrating two age-old fine crafts into one contemporary solution. The clay is run through a slab roller (simple machine) after being wedged from previously used clay. Firing in the kiln takes the clay through its next state of matter (bisque ware). We then had students use oil pastel and watercolor to add color in a resist technique to their textured pieces.

3. Growth Mindset

Hands-on, first-person discovery through art builds capacities for innovation. During a programme of inquiry about the human body, Grades 2/3 participated in a STEAM lab to create articulated hands. The completed hand model moved with the tug of a string to show how tendons work with bones. Some didn’t move, leading to evaluation and comparison with peers for a deeper understanding of how the parts of the hand work, then adjusting to make room between the “bones” for a joint. These lessons in hands-on modules reinforce a growth mindset that empowers students to solve issues, seek peer input and experiment to find success - qualities that are important in all applications. It’s the antidote to “I can’t do it!”

4. Naming and Framing

We frequently frame Art instruction to help students identify the kind of thinking we want them to exhibit, linking disciplines in yet another way. We may tell them they’re working like scientists, or in the case of a Grade 4/5 project, like archaeologists and engineers. Students created multi-cultural masks, researching form and function to better understand the ancient civilizations they were studying. They were challenged to “hack the mask” using creative thinking strategies to transform a basic mask template to fit their design. This exercise demonstrated that art has different functions based on its purpose. An archaeologist is creating for cultural accuracy to educate others, rather than free expression.

5. Critique and Presentation

In conjunction with a lesson about biomes, students learned how carnivorous plants have adapted to trap prey. Utilising the Agency by Design (AbD) protocol developed through Project Zero “Students tested the wind chimes for sound quality.”of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, students in Grades 2/3 designed and illustrated a new carnivorous plant. The drawings indicated both form and function, underscoring the link between purpose and design. Students shared their creations, explaining details and getting feedback for improvement from peers. Students learned how to both give and receive constructive criticism in this exercise - skills that transfer to all facets of life. They refined their drawings and presented again, showing how feedback was incorporated in the final version. Key takeaways beyond the original lesson about how plants survive and thrive included recognising the value of collaboration and embracing opportunities to improve and grow.

6. Guide on the Side

Middle years (Grades 6-8) students have more opportunities to connect STEAM subjects within the Visual Arts programme, selecting from a variety of classes such as sculpture, sewing, 3D design and glass arts. Motivated by their interest in the art form, students are encouraged to explore, experiment and challenge themselves beyond following directions. Within a Fiber Arts class, students observed a sheep shearing, carded wool and applied dye, digging deeper to understand how the properties of wool work with the dying process. Teachers serve as the “guide on the side”, allowing students to do the work and reach conclusions about their processes. Students can draw parallels between their artistic explorations and academic knowledge, based on years of connecting art to their programmes of inquiry.

Full STEAM ahead

In the real world, no subject exists in isolation. Integrated instruction of STEAM subject areas through the arts breaks down learning siloes, equipping students with creative skills to reinforce and apply learning, tactical problem-solving experiences and an innovative growth mindset.

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