Tag Archives: visual arts

Arts Education and Why It Matters Every Bit as Much as Science and Engineering

Thomas Südhof is an unlikely champion for arts education.

He’s a biochemist, a professor of medicine at Stanford, and last year won the Nobel Prize for his work on vesicle trafficking, which for those of you who, like me, are not prize-winning scientists, means how cells communicate with their environments.

But in a recent interview Südhof said he feels training in the arts can be just as important in preparing kids for scientific or technical careers as training in the sciences, “if not better,” he told Ryan Romine at Stanford. “Because the 
arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention 
to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need 
for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile
 for future learning.”

As self-described “Chief of Confusion” John Seeley Brown said recently, “Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.” Art and music, he argues, are some of the most important things to teach because of their ability to spur imagination.

We spend a lot of time on this blog touting the importance of STEM learning, the need for technical skills in the future workforce, and, well, bragging about the incredible work going on in the Pittsburgh region to advance student learning in STEM subjects.

But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the arts, or why all of our students need an interdisciplinary education to be able to engage in systems thinking. Writing at the Atlantic in post titled “STEM Needs a New Letter,” Jessica Lahey argues that though the attention to STEM education is well warranted, “turning STEM into STEAM will make this effort even more worthwhile.” The new “A,” in case you haven’t figured it out, stands for the arts.

Lahey continues: “As Obama stated in 2011, ‘We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.'”

Perhaps there’s another thing that the arts—and the creative process—can teach us. As any artist knows, ideas don’t just come bounding in on demand like a well-trained dog. Artists learn how to get comfortable with waiting for that elusive “genius” moment to hit while also honing their ability to stay attuned to its possibility.

As Kathleen Costanza wrote here, “Working hard and learning to love the process while receptively preparing for a ‘genius’ is a bit like keeping your eyes peeled [on the sidewalk] for a dime and finding a dollar. It pays to always be looking—and being ready for creativity or luck to hit.”

In Pittsburgh we’ve been working to help kids develop these interdisciplinary skills in STEAM learning since 2009, with leadership from our public schools.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s new Dream Factory, three classrooms that had previously been separated—the art room, the technology education room, and the computer science room—are now working in close collaboration. Students there are programming interactive games, building robots, and deciding whether they want to paint, use 3D printing to create a sculpture, or some combination.

“This is not a gifted program, this is not an afterschool activity” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent of schools. “Every kid is getting this at our school.”

Educators like Sue Mellon have been helping. Her 7th and 8th grade students at Springdale Junior and Senior High/Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District are developing a deeper understanding of poetry by playing around with robotics. She’s using hummingbird robotics kits originally designed at at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab.

“A lot of kids aren’t crazy about poetry,” Mellon said. “But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate.”

Or the newly expanded STEAM center at Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which is designed to get educators to collaborate across disciplines.

“STEM alone will not get us there,” John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design wrote in a recent post at Edutopia. “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.”

Through the Arts, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Innovators

Strickland is president of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and its subsidiaries. He is the author of Make the Impossible Possible, and a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient.

Remake Learning: I was really struck by your story of stumbling on someone making pottery and how that changed your life. What do you think it was that captured your imagination so intensely?

Bill Strickland: With pottery you take something that’s basically lifeless, and in minutes you can create something—a vessel, a jar, a bowl. It’s magical.

And you’ve taken that sense of magic so far. Do you feel that exposing kids to some sort of artistic endeavor is an intrinsically good way to get them engaged with learning?

Absolutely. I think that kids are built for creative activity. Kids learn to run, sing, play, and color. Those are all artistic endeavors. For the first five years of their lives, that’ll almost exclusively be how kids learn. I think it’s how we’re built as humans. Creative activity releases a part of your consciousness that is essential to mental and physical health. And this isn’t a theory. This is real. I got to experience it as a young adult, and it’s the insight that led me to create the Manchester Craftsman Guild.

I had the good fortune to be talking to John Seely Brown the other day, and he was saying that what was happening with STEM was a tragedy. He said there is nothing more important than learning art and music. Why do you think our culture is so resistant to this idea?

It’s considered a secondary experience, and so isn’t allowed to take its rightful place as part of the legitimate discipline of learning—something that can contribute to our overall general welfare. Many people don’t understand what a significant role the arts play in our daily life. You wouldn’t have automobile design if it weren’t for artists.

Right. And I’d imagine what you’re saying goes way beyond people who want to be in the arts as professionals. Rather it’s a way of thinking, right? A way of approaching the world that will serve people no matter what they do professionally.

People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.

That’s what my program is built on. We have 500 kids a week who come to us after school for exposure to and immersion in the arts. Most of these kids do not have “artistic aptitudes,” whatever that means.  But they have expressed interest. What we’ve learned is it becomes a very powerful incentive for kids to stay in school and go off to professional careers. The thing that gets them to that point is exposure to the arts and also to the whole sociology of developing relationships, building self-confidence, and discovering the ability to achieve something. All those skills come into play when you expose kids to the arts. It’s an intelligence just as important as anything that happens in math.

How did you go from your initial instinctual realization to actually building what you built? How does that actually happen?

When I graduated high school, I wanted to keep my hands in clay. In order to do that, I had to figure out how to get a studio. That coincided with the riots in Pittsburgh, and there was a lot of foundation and government money out there for calming things down. I just happened to be standing there with my idea about building a studio to expose kids in the community to the arts.

And you insisted it wasn’t just a pottery space in some basement somewhere. It had to be a nice environment with world-class equipment and world-class people coming in and out. Can you talk about that?

I think people need beauty. I think it’s important to quality of life. People have a tendency to match their behavior to the environment in which they’re put. If the first thing you do when you walk into school is go through a metal detector, you’re already thinking you’re in jail. People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.

Have you had any problems at your centers?

We have eight centers we own and operate. Not one of them has a metal detector, and not one of them has had a fight, a drug or alcohol incident, or a police call in years.

How would you describe the nuts and bolts of how learning experiences are developed in your centers?

We have motivated faculty, professionally trained in the craft that they’re teaching. We don’t have gym teachers teaching art. It’s world-class craftsmen and artists teaching. I give them maximum flexibility to design the curriculum. They can change the curriculum on a dime if it’s not meeting the needs of the kids. We’re constantly innovating, constantly updating. I go out of my way to make sure the kids have the best equipment that money can buy and the best faculty. Then you get the best kids and the best outcomes.

What else have you learned over the years?Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

Children deeply need structure. They need goals. They need to be given outcomes and objectives. And more importantly, at the end of the day, they need to feel that somebody cares about them. Many of these kids are coming from environments where there are no parents or only one parent. They’re dealing with welfare, drugs, poverty and violence. We create an environment for them that says, “We care about you. We’re not going away. We’re here for the long term. You’re part of us, now, so let’s go.”

You’ve really been ahead of the curve on some ideas about learning that have now flipped more into the mainstream. Do you like what you’re seeing?

I’m encouraged by what I see, but I’m not convinced yet. I see some signs of life, finally, but we have a lot of catch up to do. The country is behind. We’ve gotten too damn bureaucratic and too preoccupied with magic bullets, which don’t actually exist. My message is, “Look, we’ve got some pretty factual stuff now that tells us we’re on the right path.” Now we’ve got to scale up and take it to the level where we can really begin to make a difference in the direction of the country.

You lead me right to my next question about scalability.

We have eight centers open—San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, Buffalo, New Haven, and our first rural center, in Brockway, Pennsylvania. They’ve been around now for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years. We know the model works, and that I don’t have to be there in person to run them. It’s possible to create local organizations, with local leadership and local funding. So I believe it’s a scalable model. The goal is to build 200 centers around the world.

I feel like people’s conception of what scale means has been changing. That it’s gone from trying to do the exact same thing in different locations to figuring out what’s going to work in a specific location.

That’s how we operate. We’re not McDonald’s. We’re not stamping out hamburgers. What we’re doing is creating a strategy in each community. You base your programs on what the needs are locally. That’s the smart play. It’s the values and the attitude that are scalable. For example, every space has to be beautiful. No used equipment. Motivated faculty. And so on.

I’ve heard you talk about “perseverance,” How does that play out here?

The kids start with us in eighth or ninth grade. They stay with us through high school graduation. That is one of the big reasons our program works. You’ve got to be around for a while in order to get someplace. We have a chance to help the kids develop skills and internalize values. That’s the whole point. It’s not three weeks. It’s not a trip to the museum. It’s a long-term strategy.

People talk a lot about 21st century skills. What do you think?

What the hell is that?

It’s asking what do people need to know moving into the future? I think disposition is better language. So let me put it to you this way: What do you think are the most important dispositions that kids need to have today?

How to think. How to solve problems. I don’t care whether it’s making a pot, taking a picture, or doing math. It isn’t about STEM. It’s about learning. I have kids in the Pittsburgh center on the vocational side who are doing all kinds of STEM—engineering, biochemistry, and biotech. They have no background in science but within twelve months they’re going. Why? Because we’ve taught them how to think and how to have confidence that the problems they’re encountering are solvable. Humans created our problems. Humans can solve them. Give kids confidence, create a predictable environment and encourage them. These are the things that allow people to learn.

Proposal Submission Deadline for DML2013 Quickly Approaching!

The deadline for proposal submissions for DML 2013 is rapidly approaching on November 6th, 2012!

The upcoming conference, themed Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices and Remixing Youth Participation, will be taking place in Chicago, Illinois on March 14-16, 2013. This annual event unites scholars and practitioners to engage in collaborative dialogue over theory, empirical study, policy, and practice. By submitting a proposal, you can have a hand in shaping the conversation from which great ideas will grow. Proposals for DML 2013 can be in any of three forms: panel, workshop, or short talk. Each having their own structural strengths, taking advantage of the opportunity to choose a format that best suits your idea is encouraged. Panels: bring four presentations representing a range of ideas and topics together in discussion, are scheduled for 90 minutes, & should include a mix of individuals working in areas of research, theory, and practice Workshops: provide an opportunity for hands-on exploration and/or problem solving, are scheduled for 90 minutes, & should be highly participatory Short talks: short, ten-minute talks where presenters speak for ten minutes on their work, research, or a subject relevant to the conference theme and/or subthemes In addition to selecting a format, a proposal must also fall under one of the five sub-themes for the 2013 conference:

  • “Envisioning 21st Century Civic Education”
  • “Youth Media & Youth Movements: Organizing, Innovation, Liberation”
  • “Whose Change is it Anyways? Futures, Youth, Technology & Citizen Action in the Global South”
  • “Tech for Governance: Community-Driven Innovation”
  • “Digital Media and Learning”

If you’ve got a great idea relevant to the upcoming DML 2013 conference, ready your proposal and get it in by November 6th at 5pm PST. If you’d like to learn more about proposal themes and guidelines, click here.

Note Takers Take Note of this New Product

Evernote and Moleskine have joined forces in the war on note taking. From this alliance has come the Evernote Smart Notebook from Moleskine. This new product, set for distribution October first, will bridge the gap between paper and pixels.

Today’s update to Evernote for iOS adds a new mode called Page Camera, which is optimized for bringing handwritten pages into Evernote. It fixes the contrast and shadows, so the handwriting is more visibile. That makes the notes more legible to you, but it also enables Evernote to read and search the text.

While this works for any page, the Smart Notebook from Moleskine has some enhanced features. It comes with stickers that enable Evernote’s camera to automatically tag your hand-written notes, so they end up in the right place in your digital archive.

Who makes the science behind this useful tool, you  might ask? Only the best of the best were recruited to develop the software behind this product.

Evernote’s OCR is great at print, but it also has some of the best computer scientists in the field of handwriting recognition behind it. Some of its core team members were on the Apple Newton team and wrote the CalliGrapher handwriting recognition engine. In May, Evernote acquired Penultimate, the best digital handwriting app for iPad, so now that team gets to optimize Evernote’s OCR with data from all that digital handwriting.

To learn more about the Evernote Smart Notebook from Moleskine and how you can pre-order yours today, check out this full article online.

The Next Generation of Makers

We Don’t Just Live, We Make

The world we live in today did not happen by accident. Everything around us is a product of someone’s imagination, ingenuity, and inspiration. Makers are curious, creative, ambitious, and innovative. They are simultaneously artist and scientist. They are average people who are passionate and dedicated to reimagining the world around them and for whom the process of making is more important than the final product.

We don’t just live, we make.  This is the mantra of Dale Dougherty, founding editor and publisher of MAKE Magazine and co-founder of the Maker Faire. Dougherty is known as the godfather of the “maker movement,” a modern Do-It-Yourself (DIY) renaissance that embraces science and art, technology and crafting, functionality and whimsy, play and purpose.  He once described the maker movement as a lifestyle that rejects commercial culture and embraces “green” living and self-sufficiency.

From the Fringes to the Spotlight

In recent years the maker movement has migrated from garages and workshops into the mainstream. The concept of making is embraced by museums, K-12 classrooms, universities, community centers, art galleries, and even Fortune 500 companies. Magazines like MAKE, founded by Dougherty in 2005, and WIRED have helped bring the people and projects at the core of the maker movement into the worldwide media spotlight.

Websites like Etsy, Instructables, and Pintrest have made it easier than ever for makers to connect with one another and to build off of one another’s progress. However, it’s not only the internet that has made the maker movement increase in mainstream popularity. The cost and availability of raw materials including technology has gone down considerably in recent years.  Software like AutoDesk, Photoshop, and iMovie have revolutionized the DIY movement and are accessible to almost everyone. Machines like 3D printers—which are the cool new tools among maker circles—can be purchased for about the same cost as an Apple computer. Today, the world’s most advanced technology is just a mere click of a mouse away.

The Local Maker Movement is Changing the Landscape of Education

Pittsburgh has long been at the heart of industrial, technological, and artistic achievement. From Carnegie Mellon University to The Carnegie Museums, UPMC to PPG Industries, the Steel City continues to be a global leader in all fields of science and art.

It is no surprise that Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of world-class programs aimed at cultivating a new generation of makers. Programs that help to foster collaborations between artists, educators, scientists, parents, universities, and other institutions are popping up all over the city to offer children maker experiences. From taking apart old cell phones to sketching a prototype of a new robot to constructing an oversized model of Mars, makers-in-training have no shortage of opportunities for expression both in and out of the classroom.

In the winter of 2011, a repairman entered a kindergarten classroom to fix a broken heater at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 located on Pittsburgh’s North Side. One student in the classroom, who was no more than five years old, asked the worker if he was going to use a schematic to fix the heater. Yes, a kindergarten student inquired about a real life schematic.

Children's Innovation Project.

Thanks to the Children’s innovation Project (CIP), the kindergartners at Allegheny know more about schematics, electrical circuitry, and sketching diagrams than most adults. Established in 2012, CIP tends to focus on the youngest makers: three to five-year-olds. In addition to building hands-on and technical know-how, the in-classroom experiences enhance skills in language, art, understanding  concepts, and interpreting information.

“We were really proud when we heard that story,” says Jeremy Boyle, a resident artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Community, Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab and co-developer of CIP. Along with Melissa Butler, kindergarten teacher at Allegheny Traditional Academy, Boyle designs interdisciplinary programs that encourage kids to look beyond the surface and discover the basic building blocks that make up the world around us.

“At the beginning of the school year, we asked kids to bring in a small toy for them to take apart,” says Butler. “At first they didn’t want to take it apart, like they were breaking a rule that says you aren’t supposed to see what’s inside. Several months later they could tell you what was making the toys work without having to take them apart.”

Now in its second year, CIP asks kids to break down what they see through tinkering, observational drawing, and creative inquiry. With technology as the anchor, Boyle spends hours allowing the students to discover concepts like cause/effect, which they have rephrased as do/happen.  “Getting the kids to realize that everything is a construct is key to what we’re doing,” says Boyle.  “Melissa and I present making in the context of art to show kids that ingenuity is within their reach.”

Boyle has been working on maker education initiatives with Butler since 2003, when they met at the Mattress Factory art museum. This fall, CIP will expand to first and second grade classrooms at Pittsburgh Traditional Academy, as well as other in-school and out-of-school programs throughout the region.

Collaborations are the Cornerstone of Maker Education

Like the partnership between Boyle and Butler that brought together CMU’s CREATE Lab and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the MAKESHOP is the outcome of The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s collaboration with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. MAKESHOP is the first permanent “maker” exhibition in a children’s museum anywhere in the country.

MAKESHOP at The Children's Museum

On any given day, the MAKESHOP is bustling with kids of all ages and their grown-ups. The atmosphere is busy, with creations being made on every available surface, even the floor. Adam Nye, MAKESHOP manager, works closely with research fellow Lisa Brahms, to make the new exhibit a mecca for making and learning.

“Parents are learning right next to their children, and they’re taking an active role in the process,” says Nye. “We have materials that spark every interest, from hammers and nails to sewing machines to pencils and paper.”

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning and Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), Brahms knows it’s important to remove any barriers that may prevent families from getting involved in making. “Our goal is to simply encourage kids to tinker with materials and get a basic understanding of the design process,” says Brahms. “If they are interested in some of the foundational concepts, then we hope it will spark their desire to dig deeper. Our staff members guide visitors while they’re here, and expose them to terminology and equipment. In the education world, it’s called scaffolding.”

Scaffolding is a prominent educational model, both in and out of the maker world. It’s a theory that promotes deeper learning in any subject, where teachers tailor lessons to each student’s learning goals. With high student to teacher ratios in schools, many parents are looking outside of the classroom for this type of student-centric learning and they’re finding it among independent maker programs.

Maker Programs Offer Support Outside the Classroom

At Assemble, a community art and technology space in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, artist and gallery director Nina Barbuto asks a group of eager kids, “If you could make anything out of electricity, what would you make and why?” One kid said she would build a robot so that she’d have someone to play tennis with. Other kids said they would make lightning fast cars, or robots to clean their rooms, and one said he would build a machine to raise the Titanic.

“I drive my daughter here from Sewickley,” said Shannon Ashmore whose child attended Assemble’s M3 Workshop on electricity. “My husband and I are both architects so making and creativity is important in our family. These workshops are a great support to what our daughter learns in the classroom.”

Kids collaborate with adult mentors at Assemble / Photo: Ben Filio

Programs at Assemble are part art workshop, part science lab, and part learning party. Children are greeted with bowls of goldfish crackers and coolers of juice boxes. There are heaps of recycled materials: a jar of old screws here and a mound of empty egg cartons there. The walls are covered in blank newsprint, so kids can boldly sketch their ideas. It’s a wonderland for creative expression. Participants get several hours of instruction with an artist or professional scientist, and at the end they are asked to “present” what they’ve made.

“We take simple materials and big concepts, then we make some really cool things with them,” says Barbuto, a trained architect, installation artist, and educator. “Assemble is a space for big and small kids to share knowledge and to have a great time doing it. We provide an alternative to the classroom environment where kids gain confidence through making. Our hope is that they take these skills and apply that to all other areas of their lives, including school.”

Kids are Born Makers

The maker movement is about access to materials and information,” says Joe Wos, director of Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum and proud father of a young maker. “The internet provides the ultimate research tool for kids. They don’t have to go to a museum or school to find cool stuff to build with. I give my old phones and computers to my son, who was able to name their components by age 5.”

As an artist, cartoon museum director, and parent, Wos is always looking for new ways to make “geek culture” cool. He frequently allows his son to work alongside him at The ToonSeum, testing new technologies that engage the public in thinking creatively.

“They take a movement and say now how do we teach this? It’s simple,” says Wos. “You don’t! You provide the resources, the tools, and the materials then get the heck out of the way. Sometimes we actually need to step back and realize that maybe we have more to learn from kids in some cases than we have to teach them.”

That’s where places like MAKESHOP and Assemble, along with in-classroom programs like the Children’s Innovation Project become invaluable resources. They provide a safe haven for exploration, an environment where kids can create and learn without reproach.

Children are natural “makers”. From the moment they are born, they are filled with an innate sense of curiosity and wonder. They tinker, hack, play, design, build, explore, tweak, and create. It’s going to take a village, or in this case a city, to nurture the next generation of makers so that they see the world as  theirs to transform.