January 11, 2016

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Educating Innovators

Using Arts Education to Complement Core and STEM Curriculum

By Lisa Christensen

January 11, 2016

The program has been privately funded for years, but started receiving funding through the Legislature in 2008. It currently facilitates partnerships between specialists and more than 130 schools, and Jensen says it is expected to have reached roughly 300 schools by year’s end through these educational programs.

Sharee Jorgensen, district arts specialist for the Canyons School District, says the point of this integrated learning is to educate students not of the arts, but through the arts. Of the five schools in Jorgensen’s school district receiving a BTSALP grant, three have a dance specialist, while two have a theater specialist. In one lesson, a dance specialist worked with students learning about animals to make a spider web and move through it as a spider might.

“They’re using movement as a way of expression,” she says. “I think because the arts are so engaging naturally—it’s not a sit-and-listen kind of content—the kids retain more, they’re more focused, and they remember more what’s going on.”

At Bridger and Ellis Elementary Schools in Logan, Elsie Brundage has also found that to be true. “I think the instruction is more meaningful for them when they can do something hands-on,” she says.

Brundage has a degree in secondary art education, with an additional endorsement for elementary art. She spends the first half of the year at Ellis Elementary School and the second half at Bridger. In her third year of being a BTSALP grant teacher, she says, she’s starting to get a better feel for what projects help the students best—and how to balance her specialty with the classroom teachers’.

“We work side by side with classroom teachers. If the fourth grade is learning about symmetry or fossils, we come up with an art project together,” she says. “For me, the challenge is keeping it still a fine arts lesson and not getting sucked in [to the curriculum]—it’s that classroom teacher teaching that concept. I complement it.”

Another education trend that includes incorporated or complementary learning is a renewed interest in project-based learning, says Pyfer, where students have to pull knowledge from a variety of subjects or work with students who might have different academic strengths to complete the assignment.

“It’s a great approach, because students are learning better how to apply a scientific formula or to apply something you learn in math. When you apply knowledge, it starts to make sense. This is how you do it in the real world,” she says.

Valuing Soft Skills

Skills like the ability to work in a team, problem solving and communication are considered “soft skills,” rather than “hard skills” like competency or training in STEM subjects, says Mark Knold, senior and supervising economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. While teachers and employers will list hard skills as the most important things to get hired in STEM fields, those soft skills are still necessary for success, he says.

“It’s amazing to us when we get into an industry when we think it’s hard skills and hard skills only, soft skills can be a big problem for them. Soft skills are still very important in the whole system and structure,” he says.

Even in his own experience in hiring economists, a profession that falls in the STEM field, Knold says a lack of  skills like being able to work or communicate well with others does more damage to a prospective employee’s chances of being hired than a deficit of their technical skills.

“They don’t get weeded out by their hard skills; they get weeded out by their soft skills,” he says.

Pyfer says many of those soft skills—communication, innovation, problem solving, creativity—come easily to children. Education needs to focus on fostering those skills, not stifling them, as it teaches technical lessons.

“They’re born creators, and we need to continue to encourage that in children in the school system, give them an opportunity for expression and opportunities to continue to create,” she says. “They’re going to be the next innovators, that’s all there is to it.”

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