The Role of Art in STEM Education

I hear and read a lot about the value of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education nowadays. There’s no denying that those subjects are vastly important in the grand scheme of the 21st century.


But there is relatively little attention paid to the role that art can and should play in a STEM education. There are definitely movements in that direction in isolated pockets of academia and industry, but that impulse has not gained enough traction yet that the concept of STEM has turned to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math).


The Fall 2015 issue of The Seven Hills School Magazine contains an article that highlights how much art and it’s processes, both technical and creative, are an integral part of STEM. (Seven Hills is a K-12 school in Cincinnati, OH.) It’s one of the few articles I’ve read that shows this connection and how it is being applied in the curriculum at all levels of the school.


When you think about it, every time we teach our students how to mix paint, graph a drawing, apply emulsions, and create glazes, we are teaching them to use chemistry and math. Making 3D art requires engineering concepts and tools. Software programs and digital printers are vital tools for art creation. So how is art not a part of STEM?!


As Seven Hills middle-school art teacher Elissa Donovan says in the article, “Science, math, technology and engineering provide building blocks. Art is the key to imagination, the inspiration to arrange these blocks in new ways.”


We all should advocate for art to be a part of STEM education, and should devise our art curricula in such a way that STEM becomes STEAM.



Course Evaluations and Their Uses- Initial Thoughts

It surprises me that we haven’t yet made a post about course evaluations. Perhaps because this blog focuses more on preparing to teach and then actually teaching a course, we have paid relatively little attention to date to what happens at the end of a course besides handing out grades.

It is important, however, to pay attention to course evaluations, because they play such a significant role in tools that teachers can use to self-evaluate, but also because administrations use them to evaluate teaching effectiveness. This latter point is incredibly important for those who are in a tenure-track position, but also important for all others whose performance will be measured in part through course evaluations.

For starters, please read the article “How to Use Student Evaluations Wisely” by Professor David D. Perlmutter,, Dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University.

In it, he discusses how such evaluations can be and are used both by administrators as well as by faculty. In future posts, I will discuss my take on course evaluations and address some of the points Professor Perlmutter makes.

Self-Assessment = Getting them to Think about their work

There is a lot of chatter in the education community about Self-Assessment. In feeling somewhat dissatisfied that my rubrics are often more useful to me than to my students, I decided this fall to institute more consistent self-assessment into assignments. This assessment has taken two forms – the most obvious is actually giving them the rubric and asking them to complete it and turn it in with the project (the hope here is that this will provoke them to actually read the rubric!). The second is providing them with a series of questions about their work. The goal for me with self-assessment is that they think through what they are doing, rather than waiting for a longed for, but often mysterious grade from me. In the past I have asked them to write a self-evaluation with their projects, building up to an overall statement by the end of the semester. My new approach is giving them self-assessment questions tailored to the assignments.

It’s nearing the end of the semester and what has come of this new approach? Some students have been diligent in their responses, some slackers, just as I imagined. The real bonus has been getting a fix on whether they actually understand the assignments – they may be doing it right, but are they connecting the dots? Ultimately, their self-assessments have been more valuable all along the way than the end of semester course evaluations that at my school at least, are an agony of filling in bubbles and navigating obtuse data. If I ask a student “Which aperture gave you consistently shallow depth of field?” not only am I getting them to think about the result (rather than just look at it), I am also getting a sense as to whether they understand what they have done. It’s helping me to see on an assignment-to-assignment basis whether I am an effective teacher. How carefully or thoughtfully they respond, helps me to also understand whether my students are diligent learners. An obvious lesson is that those who skip the assessment are often the most problematic learners. A corollary bonus is that I get a sense of my student’s expectations. By offering them the opportunity to score their own rubric then match it to mine, room opens up for a conversation about those expectations.

Self-assessment takes time and for me is always a work in progress. I highly recommend incorporating it into assignment delivery and course expectations.

Submitting to conferences: part 3 – Writing the abstract

Writing an abstract for a conference can be a fine art. The most important thing to consider, is that this is an abstract, not the paper itself, meaning that it is an idea of what will be communicated laid out as succinctly as possible. It is not an artist statement, it is not a theoretical text or graduate thesis, rather it is a statement that should be simple and direct: I am going to do X, Y and Z, here’s how and here’s why. Keep in mind that the review committee does not need to be impressed by your virtuoso writing abilities and lofty ideas, the panel needs to know WHAT you are going to talk about and why they should be interested. If it’s a well-attended conference, the reviewers will be looking at a lot of proposals and don’t have time to deconstruct your ideas. This is much more similar to writing a grant proposal than an artist statement in that you need to write your abstract with as much clarity as possible and with the assumption that the reviewers are intelligent, but not experts in your field.
• Pay attention to the word count – it is meant to be short and sweet.
• Explain only as much as you need to give the reviewers a good idea of what you will present. Start with an outline to help organize your ideas.
• Write with clarity for an intelligent reader unfamiliar with your field – do not make assumptions.
• Start with a positive and compelling statement. Even if your presentation will be critical, find a way of framing it positively.
• Panel abstracts should open with a general overview paragraph – what is the panel theme? And then use your subsequent space to explain what each participant will bring to the theme (space in bios can also be used to help elaborate on this).
• Your bio, if requested, should be tailored to your proposal – what experience do you have that supports what you will be discussing?
• Likewise your work samples, if relevant, should support your abstract. If you mention a particular artwork, provide a slide and note the number in the abstract.
• Consider that your ideas might shift and change during the time between acceptance and presentation. Typically you will be given another opportunity to present a refined abstract for publication in conference materials. Leave your abstract open enough that it allows for this growth.
• Don’t try to do everything, you won’t have time and your presentation will be much more successful if you expand from a tight proposal, rather than throw out every move you have (keep them hungry for more!).
• If you will be presenting your graduate thesis, write an abstract that is a simplified summation (think book jacket eloquence), not an excerpt.
• Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get accepted the first time. A conference is a lot like a group show: the organizers are trying to put together a group of presenters that will be unique, but complementary.

Submitting to conferences: part 2 – Organizing a panel

Organizing a panel for a conference is an excellent way to take your participation to a higher level, gain attention for your work and expand your networking alliances. Submitting for a conference is quite a bit like applying for shows, grants or jobs. You need to consider who your audience will be, do your research and be true to who you are. You’ll throw your hat into the ring, see what comes back and try again the following year if you don’t get accepted the first time. Just like with shows, just submitting gets your work or your interests in front of more eyes, which is always a good thing.

How to go about it:
• Read and research the criteria thoroughly. Usually all the information you need to get started is going to be available on the conference website.
• Any questions you have or clarifications you need, contact the conference organizers – it’s their job and they can give you the best advice.
• Get started early. If you would like to organize a panel, which is typically a group of individuals who will speak expertly on a topic, it’s not a bad idea to connect and network with peers during the current conference in anticipation of next year’s conference.
• Consider the conference theme – does it connect with your work or interests? Check with the specific conference, but it is not always necessary for your submission to connect with the theme, however it might give you an advantage.
• What kind of panel do you want to organize – educational, theoretical, work oriented?
• Keep the panel manageable. Four participants, with a maximum of 5, is a good guideline. You’ll be sharing time – find out in advance the maximum amount of time you can apply for, that will determine what your panel can support.
• Set up a calendar of deadlines – abstract, bios, images due.
• Skype is a fabulous tool – use it to chat about the preparations.
• One person should be the point person, responsible for organizing the group and making the submission.
• Don’t try to do everything! Keep it simple, direct, broad enough in theme to allow room for everyone, but simple enough to not demand the kitchen sink.
• Find a mentor who can help give you feedback on the process.

Submitting to conferences: part 1

Attending conferences is an easy way to stay active in your field and is often considered faculty development. Submitting to conferences takes participation to a higher level and typically will be appreciated by your school – especially if they are paying for your attendance. One of the first things to be cut is often money for faculty development, so having an invitation to speak, will push you higher on the list for funding or might get you a little extra funding.

There are several approaches you can take when applying to conferences which might include organizing a panel or practicum, applying to an already accepted panel, applying as an image-maker to show your work.
• Look for conferences that are in your field or area of expertise;
• Regularly scan College Art Association or other big conferences for panels you might submit to;
• Organize your own panel;
• Keep an eye out for conferences that might have a special application for your school and therefore might receive special funding;
• Offer to be a portfolio reviewer;
• If you go to a yearly conference, consider getting involved in leadership or at least joining caucuses;
• Keep in mind that there are often regional conferences;
• Get some mileage out of your proposal, tweak it for other conferences;
• Being a conference participant often comes with a discount on conference fees, making your development funds go a little further.
• Just attending a conference does little for tenure review; presenting/participating does a lot.

Creating Visibility for Your Classes

When trying to advance your program, visibility is key. It doesn’t hurt your career either. Finding a balance between forwarding programs that are of benefit on multiple levels, versus personal opportunism can be difficult, however if you have the best intentions your efforts to increase visibility for your classes or your program will most likely have beneficial side-affects for you as well. 

Here’s an example: for my upper level courses, I try to hold the final crit in my school’s gallery space. This benefits everyone – first and foremost the students who get to see how their work will hold up in a professional space and feel a tremendous sense of semester end accomplishment. It brings visibility to my department, which is particularly important if you work at a liberal arts school and have administrators who might find what we do in the art department a bit of a mystery. It also brings visibility to my classes and to myself as an instructor. Inviting key administrators is important too – let them know what you are up to and ask them to stop by. A couple of phone calls to set everything up can go miles towards actively engaging in the school community. If you don’t have a gallery option, search out public spaces on campus and introduce art there.