Innovative project integrates arts with science learning

National Science Foundation funds Worcester incubator for Art of Science Learning

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

October 11, 2012

The worth of art versus science is a frequent counterpoint in debates about education. But what if art education not only coexisted peacefully with science education, but enhanced it? Hands-on, imaginative approaches to science education, using many of the methods used in the creative arts, have been shown to attract and retain young people in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That is the premise of the Art of Science Learning, an initiative to explore ways in which the arts can help improve how people of all ages learn STEM disciplines.

Now, with funding from the National Science Foundation’s $2.7 million award "Integrating Informal STEM and Arts-Based Learning to Foster Innovation," Worcester is one of just three cities nationwide, and the only one of its size, selected as an Art of Science Learning incubator in the move to transform STEM to STEAM—with the A added for arts. The Worcester collaborative will be led by the Ecotarium in partnership with an advisory board of interdisciplinary mentors from 10 Worcester educational, business and cultural institutions—including Sandra Mayrand, director and founder of UMass Medical School’s Regional Science Resource Center (RSRC) and director of the Central Massachusetts STEM Network.

“The collaboration of the Worcester art and science organizations, including the Medical School, greatly impressed the site reviewers,” said Mayrand. “A lot of people including representatives from government, business, education and the non-profit world quickly came together to present our case. It was obvious that we all had worked together many times.”

While project development is still in its early stages, Mayrand is especially excited about the opportunities the incubator provides for Worcester graduate students, including those in the School of Medicine and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, to participate. “They are the next generation of educators,” she noted. “Many of them are hungry for opportunities to teach.”

The NSF grant will fund arts-based incubators in Worcester, San Francisco and Chicago over the next four years as they develop innovations in STEM learning; structure an arts-based STEM curriculum; conduct experimental research to measure the impact of arts-based learning on creativity, collaboration and innovation; and create public programs using the project’s activities to advance civic engagement with STEM. The teams will learn arts-based techniques for generating, transforming, prototyping and communicating creative ideas and apply them to STEM-related civic innovation challenges. Participants will also collaborate on the development of new educational projects that integrate arts-based approaches into STEM learning.

“Being selected by the Art of Learning and the National Science Foundation is as big a coup as the funding itself,” said Mayrand. “This is great news for Worcester!”

Related links on UMassMedNow:

Mayrand receives highest award from Worcester Education Development Foundation

Biomedical graduate students take science on the road