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Christopher Lawson, 5, shows off his hand-made vest and mask. The combination of art and math demonstrates the idea behind STEAM, a national initiative to add art to STEM.

Art makes it fun to learn about science in Chicago

by Elissa Nadworny
May 23, 2013


Courtesy of Amy Vecchioni

An art work by one of Amy Vecchioni's fifth grade students at Waters Elementary School.

Christopher Lawson, 5, sits with a fellow student in his kindergarten class at the Montessori School of Englewood, cutting shapes out of paper. The task helps students gain basic skills in shapes that later form the foundation of geometry.

As Christopher cuts and cuts, he decides to make circle holes for his arms, engineering a vest. And when the vest works, he creates a mask to complement the outfit. Upon completion, Christopher parades around the classroom, sporting his newly crafted costume.

Christopher’s creation illustrates the integration of art with the STEM fields, and is the reasoning behind legislators and academics push to add art to the national STEM agenda, making a new acronym, STEAM. The STEM initiative promotes science, technology, engineering and math.

“Everyone wants their own letter in STEM because that train is leaving the station,” said Kemi Jona, a professor at Northwestern’s School of Education Policy. “But STEAM is the one that’s really taken root the most.”

Jona suspects the STEAM initiative is driven by the invention of the iPhone. “The product is this technically sophisticated device, but it’s also beautiful, well designed and has this aesthetic to it.”

The idea of STEAM was coined by Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda, and has in large part been driven by the university. Over the last two years, STEAM has made its way around the education world, appearing in a sesame street episode, TED talks, museum programming and national legislation.

“It’s a natural combination, and a lot of professions use it every day,” Jona said. “Certainly with people who do engineering design, product design and architecture.”

STEAM can be seen in jobs across industries and fields. In careers ranging from medicine to fine arts, the intersection of art and STEM isn’t just an idea, it is a reality.

“There is definitely math involved in my work at the theater,” said Catie Sesler, who works in the set design and props department at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

The theater is getting ready for the launch of “Jungle Book” this summer and Sesler has been ordering thousands of marigolds as part of a curtain made entirely of the flower.

“Props and sets must be fireproof, so we work with certain chemicals to make sure that happens,” she said.

She’s never thought of herself as a math or science person, majoring in theater in college and working in a variety of roles in different theaters over the past few years. But the more she works behind the scenes, the more she realizes how often she uses STEM every day.

“Everything we build has to be structurally sound, so there are a ton of calculations that go into it,” Sesler said. “It’s amazing how fluid the art and math and science parts of my job are. I don’t even realize.”

Sesler’s job is one of many jobs in Chicago’s workforce that demonstrate the importance of STEAM, and many visual arts programs throughout the city have taken note.

Amy Vecchioni, a visual arts teacher at Waters Elementary School, incorporates STEM subjects into her class art projects. She recently worked with her fifth graders on artwork in the style of Wassily Kandinsky to reinforce their study of geometry. Students used rulers and geometric shapes to create illustrations for class.

Local museums are also incorporating STEAM into their educational programming. The Museum of Science and Industry runs a Saturday science club where children in grades three through eight learn about architecture and engineering by designing and constructing structures using household items.

“The arts are a great avenue that leads to learning about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Anne Becker, president of the Illinois Art Education Association. “Everything sort of blends together.”

The association provides professional development for art educators. They believe art has a strong basis in science and math and support the idea behind STEAM.

Additional arts education organizations in Chicago, like Chicago Arts Partnership in Education, which partners with schools to implement art projects, have promoted signing petitions to encourage support of national STEAM legislation, such as House Resolution 51 and Senate Bill 5909. Both bills call for art to be added to the federal STEM education agenda, which aims to make US students more competitive in the job market.

Although STEAM legislation is pending in committee, the implication and enactment of the initiative is making its way to programming in and out of schools in Chicago. Experts hope the integration will help students learn to problem solve and think creatively about the STEM subjects.