Week 9/10: The Sorry State of Art in Education

When Dr. Adam Burgasser instructed the class by using gestural exercises and pipe cleaner crafts to teach about physics, I started to wonder whether he usually taught children rather than college students (who, admittedly, can sometimes be a lot like children). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the activities as much as anyone else! It was a refreshing break from all the serious lectures that we’re usually subjected to. But most importantly, the exercises could effectively convey basic physics concepts without the boring humdrum of a textbook reading. So I was thoroughly delighted when I read that Dr. Burgasser collaborated with Dianna Cowern, creator of the award-winning Physics Girl Youtube channel, to develop a physics curriculum for middle schoolers.

https://i2.wp.com/ih1.redbubble.net/image.3860682.4526/flat,550x550,075,f.jpgAs practitioners of the arts, most of us have had firsthand experience with the stigma associated with pursuing  a profession in the arts, and have struggled in some way to get to where we are today. There’s something incredibly hypocritical in the way people praise artists for their incredible talent for creating beauty, and then turn around and joke about how, as artists, we’re going to have to eat instant ramen for the rest of our lives. The reality is hardly a joke—I once interviewed Sue Dawe, the famous “unicorn painter” of the 1980s, and she admitted that her diet at the beginning of her career indeed consisted mainly of “instant noodles, powdered onion soup mix, and peanut butter sandwiches”. After a few years, she rocketed to fame, but some of her colleagues weren’t nearly as fortunate. But such stigma often prompts artists to put their creative dreams on hold in favor of a more “practical” career.

Aside from art being valuable in-and-of-itself, it is an incredibly valuable component of a wholesome education. In 1999 the College Board found that there was “a 100 point gap in SAT scores between students who had music introduction during their early elementary school years and students who did not”, and there are numerous other studies in other years proving the same thing (Vaughn and Winner 77). However, arts and music are still typically the first programs to be cut from school curricula in times of financial strain. This is partly because of the misconception school officials have about the difficulty of teaching art, but also because of corporate influence in education, which for a long time has demanded an emphasis in STEM education because of the technological surge. But this attitude is actually highly detrimental to STEM education.

Vaughn and Winner 83
Vaughn and Winner 83

A study in 2000 reveals that students who have received some form of education in the arts are likely to perform far better on the SATs, with significant improvements in math scores particularly. Another graph in the study also illustrates that, the more years of arts education a student has had, the higher their SAT scores. An absence of the arts in education doesn’t just mean students won’t appreciate the value of art, it also means they won’t understand other subjects as well as if they had a background in the arts. That’s why the Rhode Island School of Design is leading a national initiative to change STEM to STEAM.

Dr. Burgasser stated at the end of his lecture that, more and more often, those in the sciences are collaborating with those with an arts background in order to look at science from a different perspective, facilitating new discoveries. This is a concept that we often address in this course, and which I have also written about before. Beach Physics, the collaboration between Dr. Burgasser and Dianna Cowern, is the result of the combination of their creative minds in order to teach children about education. While they might not identify firstly as artists, their creativity enables them to connect physics to the beach to provide a refreshing and engaging take on physics education.

The efforts of Dr. Burgasser and many others may lead us to think that art is regaining its foothold in education, but the battle is far from over. In 2014, a survey conducted in Los Angeles found that “87 percent of elementary schools were on track to violate California law for failing to offer comprehensive access to arts instruction” (Plummer). I’m glad that the ICAM program for VisArts has such loose requirements, allowing us to apply our artistic background to a vast range of other disciplines, but I wish this structure would be applied to other disciplines, so that all students can receive the best out of their education.

-Kathy Huynh


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