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Science and the Arts: 21st Century American Educational Realism

December 18th, 2012 by Daniel Casto

Right Brain teaching artist Caitlin Shelman with students at Quatama Elementary. Photo by Allie Maya.

It should come as no surprise that some of history’s greatest artists were also scientists. DaVinci’s understanding of the human anatomy was what enabled him to so accurately portray his subjects. His art was tied inextricably to scientific inquiry. Fast-forward half a millennium to Christo and Jean Claude, wrapping the Reichstag or the Pont-Neuff, and try to imagine the two accomplishing these feats without complex geometry and mathematics. They too created art that was facilitated as much by numbers and figures as brushes or easels.

A few weeks ago, I visited a 3rd grade classroom at Quatama Elementary in Hillsboro, which had similar prospects in mind. The class was finishing up a Right Brain residency with artist Caitlin Shelman. Through this residency, students implemented different print making techniques in order to learn about the Oregonian landscape. They focused particularly on different landforms, and at the end of the experience combined their individual prints to form a map tracing the varied natural topographies of the region, from the Pacific Cliffs to the Harney Basin; Hell’s Canyon to Steens Mountain. They might not know it; but they also acted as cartographers, mapping their discoveries in one discipline by using the tools of another.

Right Brain is an advocate of the idea that the arts work in harmony, rather than opposition, with the sciences. We’re local leaders in arts integration because we believe that when students learn the arts in conjunction with other subject areas, they gain a deeper understanding of both. Our approach is precisely what folks are talking about when they bring up converting education from STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), to STEAM (adding Art). When I visited Quatama Elementary, a STEM school, this was exactly what I saw.

Shelman’s classroom project was fairly straight-forward: students chose two materials from a limited list (string, glue, create paper, tape), and worked with a partner to interpret the texture of a natural Oregonian landform—smooth, dry shoulders of high-desert boulders, clammy, pock-marked dock posts spackled with barnacles, or craggy elbows of slate gray mountain—just to name a few. The craft was supplemented with discussion about what, exactly, might constitute a landform, what might differentiate it from a man-made landmark, what we really mean when we talk about “texture,” and how we might bring these descriptors to light in movement, in writing, or in art. Amidst the whir of craft, glue-tipped fingers abandoned their paper and string piles again and again, reaching up for the ceiling to ask and answer questions or offer insights, then returning to their sticky canvasses to touch up the details on a rock-laden stream, a pine forest floor, a dew-shrouded coastline.  

This approach provided an easy way into a tough subject. A student practically wiggling with excitement over the opportunity to make art blew my mind when she volunteered a thorough explanation of the environmental processes that lead to a High Desert, then nearly touched her nose to her paper focusing on precisely how to bring to life the science she had just described. She was energized and knowledgeable about a scientific process because she was able to approach it through a creative medium.

That creative vantage point also helps kids understand the arts more deeply. Following their art-making, the class lined up for a gallery walk and critique, and a further discussion about whether the prints qualified as representational or abstract art that would have made Clement Greenberg proud.

While strides like these are possible with any group of kids, this one had the help and guidance of a teacher and a teaching artist who worked together to make Right Brain learning a cohesive element within pre-existing curricular goals (see that STEM starting to STEAM?). Participating teachers believe in Right Brain’s mission, and collaborate with teaching artists, who integrate the arts into what already takes place in the classroom. In this residency, only five one-hour weekly sessions were were dedicated to actual artmaking; but countless geological diagrams, charts, and pictures proved that this programming had been seamlessly integrated with countless aspects of the school day.

The cumulative effect of these different factors was perhaps most evident in one student. Arms flailing, head bobbing, hanging off the side of his chair, he was the pitch-perfect example of a kid strung out on school the way only an eight-year-old at 2:30 can be. When Caitlin showed up, he was immediately rapt with attention. He chose to complete the activity standing; but he stood still.  

That’s what makes Right Brain different. It’s not talking so much as doing; it’s not seeing so much as searching; it’s not watching so much as it’s making—and doing, searching, and making are easy to pay attention to. Right Brain is an atlas of new discoveries. It’s a pathway to deeper understanding and a map towards learning that’s easy to read because it lets its explorers do the mapping. It’s how—if what we’re learning is going to stick—we learn best.

   

Daniel Casto