Arts-Infused STEM Equals Student Success

by | Jun 18, 2018 | Around Town, Schools & Education

From Kristin Davis, University of Mary Washington

It started as a standard third-grade science lesson – how the tilt of the Earth causes the seasons to change. Now a group of future educators looked over a Greek play that gave a wholly different version of how summer turns to fall.

Under the direction of a UMW theatre professional, they acted out the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Persephone.

This was a study in arts integration.

For three semesters, Melissa Wells, assistant professor of education, has taught a course called Literature and the Arts in Elementary Education. She shows future teachers how to infuse subjects like math, science and social studies with five areas of art: literature, dance, drama, music and the visual arts.

Using photography to study fractions. A dance routine to simulate cloud formations. Music to solve math problems. A human tableau to illustrate the causes of the Civil War.

“I know how fun it is and how effective it can be,” said Wells, who taught in a Title I arts integration school for six years before coming to Mary Washington. Students there consistently outperformed their counterparts.

But you don’t have to be a specialized teacher or teach in a specialized classroom to integrate the arts into standard subjects, Wells tells her students. “You can work this in every day.”

It wasn’t enough for the class of teachers-in-training to hear about it, or even see it. Wells would have them do it.

They would take on the role of third-graders studying a textbook science lesson called “Why Does Earth Have Seasons?”

Wells instructed them to form a tableau – a posed depiction – based on what they’d learned. Soon, the students had bent their bodies to represent the Earth’s tilt around the sun at the start of each new season.

Then it was time for the Greek play. Wells had called on UMW Theatre Director of Marketing and Audience Services Jon Reynolds ’07. He’d trained as an actor and director before rejoining his alma mater.

Reynolds led the class through a warm-up, then explained the difference between upstage and downstage and how to exit left and right. Inside a black box theatre in duPont Hall, the students acted out their parts.

Afterwards, Wells asked them to compare the myth to what they now knew about the seasons. She asked them what scientific principal the play did not represent.

They thought for a moment before bending their bodies back into the tilt of the Earth.

The movement had helped them remember.

Before the class was over, they’d write short plays about solids, liquids and gases, something they could use in their own classrooms someday. And they’d integrate art into another science lesson by creating books for elementary-schoolers on conservation and the life cycle of a grasshopper.

Inspired by children’s author Eric Carle, who has penned such classics at The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the UMW students painted paper and cut forms and figures they glued onto pages. In just a few days, they would deliver the final products to Cedar Forest Elementary School in Spotsylvania County, for use in real classrooms.

UMW sophomore Morgan Conner thought back to her own elementary school days when she wanted to be a veterinarian. A middle-school civics teacher in her hometown of Gainesville, Virginia, changed all that.

The teacher hadn’t just wanted his students to memorize words lessons. He’d wanted them to understand civics, and he’d cared enough to make sure they did, Conner said.

She decided to become a teacher in the hope of bringing those qualities to her own classroom.

Thanks to a class in arts integration, Conner now has another way to do just that.

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