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Building STEAM: Philadelphia Program Uses Art to Teach Science

The look of STEAM2
The look of STEAM2
In Philadelphia, a group of middle school girls is making clothes and jewelry while receiving their STEM-education— that is science, engineering, technology and mathematics.
 
That might seem far-fetched, but for those who saw the row of scarves that lined the wall at Esther Klein Gallery at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia and an art installation of a spiral of leaves set on the ground last Friday, it was clear how that education is being applied.
 
Operation Eve is the work created last spring by 22 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in Philadelphia through STEAM².
 
“We're using art as a way to introduce the girls [to STEM education],” said David Clayton, Director of STEAM initiatives at the Science Center, as well as the program manager of Breadboard, the Science Center program connected with the project that explores intersections between contemporary art, design, science and technology.
 
It's an arm of education that girls are traditionally less exposed to than boys. Think home-ec and woodshop. Think of Leave It To Beaver. Not being exposed to these sorts of fields is cutting girls off from a big chunk of potential.

In 2012, only 18 percent of students who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam were female. Between 2008 and 2018, STEM-related jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent, according to the National Governors Association. In the U.S. only 6 of every 100 high schoolers choose a STEM-related major in college, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Science Foundation and Business-Higher Education Forum.
 
Through STEAM², the girls designed their own patterns for the scarves using mathematical equations. They used laser cutting technology to make the customized rubber stamps they used to embroider the scarves. To make the scarves the girls needed to know parts of geometry.  
 
Four times a week for one hour, artist Lisa Volta assisted the girls along with their teacher, Gina Griffith. For the scarves, the girls started with their own ideas and then researched old patterns on tapestries, where they also were exposed to a little history. They scanned the images onto a computer via Photoshop.
 
Then the girls took their designs to NextFab Studio, an innovative design hub near 20th and Washington Sts., where they tinkered with laser cutters and experienced with their hands the science and technology they were learning in the classroom. 
 
In a field traditionally dominated by males, the STEAM², program, now in its second year, is a move to frame STEM-education in a way perhaps middle school girls can relate to more than rockets and computers.
 
The class has become so popular there's a waiting list to get in. The project is the beginning of a long future of STEM outreach at the Science Center, according to Danielle Stollak, who recently started as STEAM Program Manager there.
 
“It wasn't a one-day, one-off, we-never-saw-the-girls-again kind of thing,” said Stollak.
 
One of Stollak's early missions as program manager is to create a long-term vision for the STEAM program. That means things like figuring out what to do with the creations once they are completed. Might that mean teaching the students eCommerce?
 
In the past five years STEM education has become increasingly prioritized and ushered onto the main stage of the educational dialogue across the nation, especially here in Pennsylvania. 
 
In 2010, the White House released a report that said less than one third of eighth graders in the U.S. show proficiency in mathematics and science. A year earlier, in November 2009, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative. It has thus far provided over $700 million towards improving STEM education, and has listed goals like preparing 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers by 2019.
 
Parlay that with the creation of the Team Pennsylvania Foundation's STEM initiative, a long-term attempt to dramatically increase the number of students entering STEM-related careers, founded in 2007, with the fact Governor Tom Corbett’s recent budget proposal puts STEM front and center in the K-12 arena, and one can see how the push to boost America's STEM capabilities is on the rise.

LOU MANCINELLI is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. Send feedback here.
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