Arts Integration Takes on STEAM

Sacrificing music, art and theater in today’s schools in favor of more science, engineering and math continues in hot debate, but educators, administrators and policymakers are also discussing arts integration and STEAM – two processes by which art is combined with other subjects; subjects that have been isolated from it in traditional education models. Teaching art is not new, but presenting art and design as equal partners to STEM subjects is. According to Rhode Island School of Design, STEAM’s original champion, “The disciplines are stronger together than apart.”

Connecting content “in and through the arts”

That’s how experts describe the way STEAM and arts integration work. The difference between the two is that with arts integration, any subject can be taught through an intentional connection to a naturally aligned art standard. As a for-instance, students can use Common Core English/Language Arts Standards and visual art standards to “read” a Norman Rockwell painting, says arts integration specialist Susan Riley.

The approach is naturally engaging to students and teachers, she explains. “Almost everyone has one art form (visual art, music, dance or drama) with which they connect and use to make sense of the world.”

Susan warns teachers about misinterpretation. “Too often the arts are used as enhancement in the lesson rather than as a true means of connecting and communicating understanding.” And arts integration can only work in schools that have strong arts programs and dedicated art classes – students need skills and processes before they can engage in an integrated lesson.

STEAM continues to unfold

Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D., a self-proclaimed “science evangelist,” was formerly an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Yale. Today, she focuses on making science fun. In an article on a few months ago, she taught teachers about the ancient art of paper folding. In doing so, she showed how art can be used as a portal to engage children in science, technology, engineering and math by using a product found in any art supply store: paper.

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“While schools are still catching up to the idea of origami as a STEAM engine (the merging of these disciplines), origami is already being used to solve tough problems in technology,” she notes. “Artists have teamed up with engineers to find the right folds for an airbag to be stored in a small space, so that it can be deployed in a fraction of a second. Additionally, the National Science Foundation, one of the government’s largest funding agencies, has supported a few programs that link engineers with artists to use origami in designs. The ideas range from medical forceps to foldable plastic solar panels.”

Ainissa calls origami “an art form for all subjects,” and offers ideas on how to use it to teach geometry, fractions, physics and biology. “This art form engages students, and sneakily enhances their skills,” she says. “Think of it as vegetables blended into spaghetti sauce.”

To teach geometry concepts, for instance, Ainissa suggests labeling an origami structure with length, width and height to help students learn terms and ways to describe a shape. For physics, “A thin piece of paper is not very strong, but if you fold it like an accordion it will be.” As she points out, bridges are based on this concept.

“Origami continues to amaze scientists with its presence in nature,” Ainissa concludes. “Many beetles have wings that are bigger than their bodies. In fact, they can be as much as two or three times as large. How are they able to do that? Their wings unfold in origami patterns. Insects are not alone. Leaf buds are folded in intricate ways that resemble origami art, too. Origami is all around us and can be a source of inspiration for children and adults alike.”

by Tina Manzer

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