STEAM Learning at the Carnegie Science Center

Students interact with an installation by artist Dan Wilcox pictured holding a green ballon.  Wilcox uses an Xbox Kinnect to detect where balloons are in relation to the camera.  The movement and proximity of the balloons affects different sound outputs.  Wilcox's wife, Anika, has installed one her large mylar inflatables pictured centered.

Students interact with an installation by artist Dan Wilcox pictured holding a green ballon.  Wilcox uses an Xbox Kinnect to detect where balloons are in relation to the camera.  The movement and proximity of the balloons affects different sound outputs.  Wilcox's wife, Anika, has installed one her large mylar inflatables pictured centered.

Moving the conversation around public education from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) has long beleaguered arts managers and arts educators alike.  Defending the argument for arts programming and arts education can be difficult in the face of shrinking school budgets and a highly competitive grant environment.  Particularly in a country that increasingly favors the hard sciences above the humanities, cultural pursuits, and artistic studies.  Despite gains at the federal level with the new core arts standards, the STEAM caucus, and the first budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts in years, it is still easy to feel defeated.  The question remains, what can arts leaders and community organizers do at the local level to push the conversation in a positive direction?

As part of my internship experience at the Carnegie Science Center (CSC) in Pittsburgh, PA, I had the privilege of overseeing an area of programming that addresses this exact issue.  Each spring and fall the CSC hosts SciTech Days, a weeklong educational event focused on college and career preparedness in the STEM fields for over 3000 middle and high school students.  However, in addition to the usual hard science initiatives that have been part of the program for the past 15 years, the CSC included a new “ArtTech” exhibit in the agenda, and thus brought me on to put together the event.

Caroline Record, pictured right, is seen interacting with visitors during her art and code tutorial.  Images created by students (with code!) are hanging on the wall behind the coding stations.

Caroline Record, pictured right, is seen interacting with visitors during her art and code tutorial.  Images created by students (with code!) are hanging on the wall behind the coding stations.

My goal with ArtTech was to demonstrate that STEM skills could be used in much more innovative, creative, and interesting ways than the average high school or middle school student might expect.  As someone who has always felt like an amalgam of the two worlds, but felt that STEM programming or STEM learning left something to be desired, putting this program together had personal significance.  My hope was that kids who do not necessarily feel "scientifically inclined" would see that stem skills do not have to be intimidating or boring. ArtTech was meant to be engaging, fun, imaginative, and hopefully capture the population of students similar to me at their age - students looking for creative outlets to enhance their learning.

The resulting program showcased artists working somewhere between the worlds of fine art, engineering, computer science, robotics and beyond.  Examples of work ranged from a karaoke robot with artificial intelligence, interactive digital screenprints, to the ability to draw with one’s own body heat.  Some examples of work include:

  •  Caroline Record, a recent Masters graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction program participated in both the November and March event.  For Spring SciTech, Record developed a short workshop where students were able to “draw with code”.  Using the free software, OpenProcessing, which was developed specifically for arts programming, she designed quick tutorials for students to learn some basic principals of computer coding.  Kids had the opportunity to alter the appearance of images by changing numerical values and rule structures within the code.  Questions, such as “what can I create with ‘randomness’”, prompted the younger learners. 
  • Jenna Boyles is a sculpture and fiber artist who also participated in both events.  Boyles works with found and recycled objects to create interactive circuits that that play on your senses.  In order to highlight the basic circuitry and engineering skills behind her work, primarily the interactive mural (pictured below), Boyles had an accompanying table of all the necessary components to build each side of her mural.  Kids were given an introduction to electrical engineering, and some accompanying computer coding skills. 
  •  Matt Sandler, artist, roboticist, and creator of the karaoke robot- a favorite of the entire SciTech Days- was the third artist to participate in both the November and March event.  In addition to highlighting the whimsy and fun that students can have using their STEM skills and creative skills in practice, many students were also eager to get Sandler’s feedback on their college application portfolios.
Adam Schreckhise, of Pittsburgh PLAY Parlour, explains the mechanics of his self engineered, nomadic arcade game.  The image and sound output from the dartboard changes depending on how fast you throw the dart and how close to the target the dart lands.

Adam Schreckhise, of Pittsburgh PLAY Parlour, explains the mechanics of his self engineered, nomadic arcade game.  The image and sound output from the dartboard changes depending on how fast you throw the dart and how close to the target the dart lands.

I appreciate how the Carnegie Science Center fosters the idea that STEM skills can be used, and are just as valuable, in the creative industries.  The reality is that not all students are going to be excited by the possibilities that complex calculus presents, but they might be more willing to engage and learn about parabolic functions if they are taught through the principals of musical sound waves- as was done at SciTech days.

While the first two runs were far from perfect, I learned a great deal about ways to effectively communicate and generate meaningful programs around art and technology.  Furthermore, the event is just one example of innovative, positive STEAM programming throughout the country that helps recognize the power of arts education.  I am hopeful that this area of programming will not only grow, but also work to bridge the divide between academic pursuits, and create a mutual understanding of worth between industries.