STEAM Ahead: Merging Arts and Science Education

BY Kelly Chen and Imani Cheers  July 31, 2012 at 2:31 PM EST

Akua Kouyate, Wolf Trap’s senior director of education (Courtesy of Teddy Wolff)

During tough economic times, arts and music programs are often some of the first programs cut in schools. But at Wolf Trap’s Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts , investing in arts education has been a priority for the past 31 years.

A study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who actively participated in the arts tended to score better in science and writing, and were more likely to aspire to college.

The study used survey data gathered over 20 years that followed socially and economically disadvantaged students, from kindergarten into their early twenties.

At Wolf Trap’s Institute of Education, they are trying something different by incorporating art with math and science.

It’s part of a different STEM movement gaining momentum, called “STEAM” – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, a match that may seem a little strange, but a no brainer for some.

The program, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Education, trains and embeds teaching artists into preschool and kindergarten classrooms and works with teachers to combine math and science with the arts.

It’s a difficult assertion to make when the U.S. is falling further behind in math and sciences as compared to other countries. In 2010, the U.S. came in 31st in math, lagging behind China and Germany.

For Akua Kouyate, Wolf Trap’s senior director of education, the link between math and the arts is simple.

“If we think historically about how that has always been a part of learning, why would we stop it? Why would we deny our children that which will allow them to really contribute significantly in the future?” Kouyate said.

It’s not only learning from root, it’s really understanding through their bodies, through their thinking, creativity and how they apply the knowledge.
–Akua Kouyate

Kouyate also argues that investing in arts education helps Americans compete in the global economy. “Part of what the arts certainly provides is the creativity and innovation, which is really fundamental in how many other countries are looking at success,” said Kouyate. “Actually in the U.S., how we want to measure success is in terms of how to be creative, how to be innovative – the arts bring that specifically into the learning experience.”

Wolftrap’s programs allow teaching artists to visit the classroom twice a week for 30 minutes of activity and meet with teachers outside of class to develop curriculum that engages children.

Video courtesy of Wolf Trap

Teaching artist Amanda Layten combines dance and math to enrich and engage learning for her preschool students in Falls Church, Va. In one of her lessons, students roll dice and balance on the number they rolled. If they roll a one, they have to balance on one leg. It’s an exercise that tests counting skills, improves muscle memory and balance and, most importantly, uses a tactile experience to test how well students are learning.

Layten and her peers agree that the versatility of arts education allows teachers to reach young learners in non-traditional ways. “If I was ever a doubter, now I believe,” many teachers have said to Layten.

Layten also teaches in Head Start classrooms where, for many English language learners, movement translates into a new way to reach students from diverse backgrounds. “Movement really translates very powerfully, where learning through the body is really powerful when you don’t have that common language.”

“It’s not only learning from root, it’s really understanding through their bodies, through their thinking, creativity and how they apply the knowledge,” said Kouyate, who believes that “math is inherent in dance.” “Children really know that they’re learning.”

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.