From STEM to STEAM: Reflections from our Big Picture Fellow John Scarfpin

KM_72_Scarfpin_JohnMiddle school teacher John Scarfpin finished up his fellowship with the NCMA Big Picture team this summer and wrote this reflection of his year diving into the arts as a STEM teacher. Here he shares his perspective on what it means to teach the arts. The student work that came out of his fellowship will be on display in the Museum’s education galleries through January 2015. You can also visit his website Technology, Engineering, and Design.

When I first took on the challenge of integrating art into my STEM class, I thought, “I already do this, it’ll be easy.” Then I actually began to look at what art teachers really have to teach. I never thought of art as problem solving, nor did I ever consider how much one needs to know to complete a work of art. I always thought of art as something that just happened. Someone found inspiration in something and created something they thought would be cool or expressive of a situation. My experience as a Big Picture fellow has given me a new perspective and respect for art teachers in general.

When I think of problem solving, I think of engineering, math, or science─but art, it was not even on the radar. I never thought that there was a problem in art. I have taken art classes in painting, photography, pottery, three-dimensional design, and sculpture, and never thought of the assignments as problems. I simply found them as enjoyable activities. I find great joy in creating things, and that was the way I viewed art as a class. Then the paradigm shift began to happen. I started to look at the parallels between art, engineering, science, and math. In all of these things, as with the rest of the universe, the foundation of these areas of study has to do with how the elements are arranged. The difference between wood stacked in a pile and the frame of a house, grains of sand and glass, numbers on paper and a well-formulated equation, paint on a palette and a masterpiece on the wall, all comes back to organization.

Once I began to realize this, my project began to take shape in my mind. Through the engineering and design procengineering_design_process1-2fdq4vsess, we began to integrate the elements of design from art. My students studied Vollis Simpson’s Wind Machine and began to define the problem they had. We wanted to create our own kinetic sculptures that we could display in the Museum. Originally, to give the project context, I had the students focus on creating something similar to Wind Machine, but as we began to move through the E&D process and identify constraints, we realized that wind was not on our side, given the display area. As a result, we modified our designs to use gearboxes and motors. As each team worked on brainstorming solutions to the problem, many different ideas emerged, ranging from pieces derived from perpetual motion machines and marble machines to more organic structures with spinning flowers.

As the ideas began to take shape and grow, so did the challenge of managing it all. Students had to then figure out which materials to use for their construction and how to assemble it so it would actually work. We focused on simple machines and compound machines in figuring out the mechanics needed to make the pieces work. Students began to bring in many assorted materials, such as cardboard, marbles, tubing, paint, and even a tree stump.

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For me, as the instructor, the real problem working against me was time. I thought two weeks would work for this project, and testing was coming, so I thought, “This will work out in time.” But two weeks became four weeks, and then after testing was over, another week until school was dismissed. In total the students spent five weeks working on the projects that I thought would take about two weeks of class time.

All I know is that art teachers must be some amazing people. I have done science projects that require extensive construction, but this was something else. Everyone was given the same prompt at the beginning, and every team took a different approach to the problem. Each project grew into extremely involved and detailed construction, and if school had not ended, I think the students would have spent several weeks more trying to add to each one.

In the end, even though some projects remain incomplete, I do not see this as a failure. This project is about the process and not the product. I feel that the students learned a great deal about the design process and how all the various curriculum areas go together in solving real world problems. There is a lot of room in STEM to make STEAM. The challenge I see is in most experiments and engineering activities is that when it works you are done. With art it is only truly done when you are ready to set down your tools and say it is done.

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