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The Art of Science Learning

July 30, 2014

The Art of Science Learning (AoSL) is a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that explores innovation at the intersection of art, science and learning, using the arts to spark creativity in science education and foster the development of an innovative 21st Century STEM workforce.

Our current project, funded by NSF grant DRL-1224111 (“Integrating Informal STEM and Arts-Based Learning to Foster Innovation”), has developed a new curriculum for adolescent and adult STEM learners that uses the arts to teach the innovation process, and has launched three year-long arts-based incubators for innovations in STEM products, processes or services, as well as in learning programs and initiatives, to test the new methodologies and approaches embodied in the curriculum.

The incubators—hosted by San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership (encompassing 27 art, science and cultural institutions), Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and Worcester’s EcoTarium—have brought together more than 300 STEM professionals, formal and informal educators, artists, business leaders, researchers, policymakers and students to create and bring to market innovative responses to STEM-based civic challenges. The challenges chosen by each community include water resources (San Diego), urban nutrition (Chicago) and transportation alternatives (Worcester).

Since last October, Art of Science Learning faculty have used the arts to teach incubator participants (known as Art of Science Learning Fellows) new ways to identify problems and opportunities; generate, transform and communicate creative ideas; collaborate on cross disciplinary innovation teams; empathically engage audiences; and co-create innovations with audiences.

Gathering data at the San Diego Incubator site.

For example, we use “Metaphorming” (a collaborative symbolic modeling process created by Dr. Todd Siler, our ArtScientist in Residence) to give our Fellows the opportunity to embody, enrich and communicate their aspirations as they launch their year-long innovation journeys. Open-ended jazz improvisation allows Fellows to practice their observational skills and encourages them to “suspend disbelief” as they strive to identify opportunities within the challenge domains. Laban-based movement work helps Fellows learn to “feel numbers” and bring openness to their search for productive convergence around shared insights. The Fellows use visual and spoken word techniques derived from the Surrealists to engage the flow of intuitive insights in their ideation, and clay sculpture as a medium for modeling their ideas and assessing how they “stand up”.

During this same period, the Fellows learn about innovation by introducing tools drawn from the Product Development Management Association Body of Knowledge and Lean Start-Up methodologies, which they subsequently apply to their own innovation processes.

After four months of this “front end” work, the Fellows identify the specific problems they want to solve and vote on the solutions they want to develop, in a largely self-organized process which ultimately led to the formation 26 cross-disciplinary Art of Science Learning innovation teams. At present, all the teams have advanced to their development phases and are transforming their initial concepts into creative learning programs and practical innovations.

While the teams work separately on their 26 innovations, the Fellows are also learning prototyping techniques, practicing visualization skills, spending time with string quartets to observe successful collaborative behaviors in multi-leader environments, learning the audience-centric iterative process of design thinking, and working with a theater-based technique called Rehearsing Ideas to accelerate their iterative cycles by rapidly incorporating audience feedback.

By the final “launch” period of the incubators (October in San Diego, December in Chicago, January in Worcester), all the teams will have developed – and in most cases actually gone to market with—“minimally viable products” (MVPs).

Incubator Projects

These three examples of work in progress already emerging from the San Diego incubator will give a vivid picture of the robust and exciting innovation now underway across the project sites. (San Diego started three months ahead of Chicago and five month ahead of Worcester, allowing us to apply the innovation process to the development of the innovation curriculum through a set of iterative cycles of improvement).

  • “Trash to Paradise” is a bi-national US/Mexico team that is developing a novel ecosystem that uses trash from the Tijuana River and wetland plants to treat water locally in response to untreated sewage flowing from the Tijuana River Valley into Imperial Beach. The team has now moved from 3D modeling and prototyping toward breaking ground on a 5-acre test site they have secured in Tijuana. With the help of hundreds of volunteers from the community, they expect to be operational by October. The curriculum the team is developing to teach the volunteers will provide the basis for a replicable and scalable informal learning program to train unskilled workers in other communities to design, construct and maintain this kind of system.
  • Team “Aqua Diao” has developed a lightweight water-generating backpack that extracts water from air, for use in remote locations and emergency situations. In order to refine their new product before going to market, the team built an atmospheric test chamber, which it is now planning to replicate for use in K-12 classrooms and informal settings to create opportunities for dynamic science learning.
  • The “Kate’s Place” team (named in honor of Kate Sessions, the “mother of Balboa Park”) is developing a model house and garden to highlight innovation in water conservation and demonstrate integrated sustainable water systems. After only three months of developmental work, the team decided to go to market with a 250 square foot MVP at the San Diego County fair, where their innovation could benefit from the feedback of thousands of visitors. In early June, Kate’s Place won first prize at the fair, helping to promote their innovation and fund their next iterative cycle of development.

Next Steps

Still to come in this four year project are experimental research studies that will measure the impact of arts-based learning on the creativity skills, collaborative behaviors and innovation outputs of STEM learners and professionals, and a traveling exhibition, designed and built at the Reuben H Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. The exhibition will incorporate the arts-based immersive learning activities of the Art of Science Learning curriculum to take visitors across the country inside the world of STEM innovation. The experimental studies represent an important opportunity to better understand the relationship between the arts, STEM learning and innovation.

Foundational studies from the past decade, such as Are They Ready to Work? have documented the central role of creativity, collaboration and communication skills to the development of an innovative STEM workforce. During the same period, a substantial body of practice developed around the use of the arts to enhance employee skills in high performance teamwork, change management and intercultural communication, with 80% of America’s Fortune 500 companies experimenting with the use of artistic skills, processes and experiences to foster creative thinking and strengthen innovation processes.

But research into the impact of arts-based learning on STEM education is limited, and research into arts-based STEM innovation processes even more so, leading the team of 90 national researchers who participated in Art of Science Learning’s Phase 1 conferences (funded by NSF grant DRL 0943769, Arts-Based Learning in Informal Science Education) to conclude that when it comes to proving that “arts engagement improves performance in STEM disciplines...there is the need for a series of more sophisticated and developed quantitative studies than have been conducted to date” (Storksdieck, 2011).

The upcoming Phase 2 research was designed to respond to that need. Starting in September, some 120 high school high school students (40 per incubator site) will participate in five successive 4-hour weekend sessions, learning and doing the front end of innovation. Half will use the Art of Science Learning innovation curriculum; the other half will use a traditional innovation curriculum based on PDMA best practices. A similar study will involve an equal number of early career STEM professionals. Both studies will test the hypothesis that integrating the arts into STEM-related innovation training results in more robust innovation processes and enhanced creative thinking skills. Changes in collaborative behaviors will be carefully observed and measured, and innovation outputs will be blindly assessed by expert panels.

In recent years, the rapid growth of interest in art/science integration has led to a rich body of “STEAM” learning practice, and the 26 Art of Science Learning innovation teams now in the field provide vibrant case studies of ways in which arts-based learning can spark STEM innovation. We hope that by next year, research data from our experimental studies, along with data tracking the outcomes of the incubator innovation teams, will provide us with new insight into whether, and how, arts-based learning impacts the foundational innovation skills needed for a 21st Century STEM workforce.