June 2011: Fine Arts Museum Brings Together Community Resources to Provide Art and Science Fusion Education
"What we'd like to see 20 years down the road are students who are better informed about art and science
but also students who are engaged--students who want to be part of the community,
make active contributions to their community, and want to share knowledge."
—Lillian Lewis, Curator of Education San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts
The San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts (SAMFA) in San Angelo, Texas is driven by the philosophy that, "we're not just about art on the walls, but art in lives, and community is the greatest work of art," explains SAMFA Director Howard Taylor. By partnering with the local Upper Colorado River Authority (UCRA) and the San Angelo Independent School District (SAISD) on a 2010 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Demonstration Grant, the museum is creating a national model for museums working to bring together community resources to provide art and science fusion education.
A Collaborative Approach to Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design and Project-based Learning
The project began with a 2008 IMLS National Leadership Planning Grant, which allowed SAMFA and its partners to consult with focus groups of local students, parents and educators. The community voiced a need for interdisciplinary, project-based learning that would help engage students in solving community issues. "Environmental issues have been primary, particularly in this water challenged environment of western Texas," says SAMFA Director Howard Taylor. With these concerns in mind, SAMFA and its partners developed the Center for Creative Energy which combines focused curriculum about water resource issues with real-world problem-solving efforts through three separate programs: Aqua Squad Student Docent Program working with a selected group of middle school students to create an exhibit and presentation on possible solutions to area water issues; a multiple-visit Art-Science Fusion program focused on the nearby Concho River for area 2nd graders; and Camp Odyssey, a one-week intensive program for students in grades 4 thru 8 to build upon project-based skills emphasized in SAISD's Texas Research Institute for Young Scholars Program.
Although still in the early stages of the grant, the project partners have already gained valuable insight about the role flexibility plays in a multi-partner collaborative project. "You have to keep in mind that there are outside factors that affect these partner organizations," explains SAMFA Curator of Education, Lillian Lewis. "We are constantly keeping abreast of what is happening to education at a state level in Texas, how that affects our individual school districts, and being sensitive to the districts' changing needs." Early on, individual principals expressed concerns that the multiple-visit programming would cut into review time for 3rd grade standardized tests.
As a solution, the museum and UCRA suggested that the audience be changed from 3rd to 2nd grade. "It felt like a major challenge at the time, but in the end it was a pretty seamless switch", says Lewis. For Christy Youker, Education Director for UCRA, the key to remaining flexible is realizing that the original plan is not the only way to achieve project goals. "Understand what your real goal is because you can't foresee all the possible problems. You have to just say, ‘Okay, let's readjust, let's think about this and what's best for the kids. How do we keep this program going?’"
Using Creativity, Documentation and Evaluation to Promote STEM Education Programs
In working to develop a national model for other institutions, SAMFA and their partners have been sure to incorporate evaluation and documentation of the project from the beginning. Video recordings of the programs and interviews with participants have proven useful on a variety of levels. "They're a great advocacy tool," explains Lewis, "It's all well and good for us to sit and talk about the value of these programs and to insinuate that they're making an impact, but when you have students who are directly involved saying, ‘These are things that I've learned directly through my experience with the program,’ I think that first-person view lends so much more to someone's understanding of how this can make a positive impact on the community." Youker feels the videos will demonstrate the value of a multi-visit museum program to schools which might be skeptical about devoting limited resources to museum programs. Recordings are also being used as an internal analytic tool for the staff, helping them to reflect upon ways to improve future programming.
The project blog acts as a way to disseminate information on both a local and national level. Assistant Museum Educator, Megan DiRienzo developed the site as, "a place where teachers could come and follow up with their programs, download the curriculum, and get supplemental information if they wanted to go more into depth with the themes." The site has also become a place for the project educators to highlight and discuss ongoing issues in art and science fusion across the country, "We try to keep our blog posts in line with our goals for the project, mainly interdisciplinary learning and relating that learning directly to life," says DiRienzo.
Becoming a Learning Center to Help Meet the Needs of Schools and Communities
The project team agrees that the strength of the program is its interdisciplinary nature and its close ties to local community needs. "Art and science--that alone is a powerful concept in education right now. School districts are clamoring for it," says Youker. With looming budget cuts to arts education, Director Howard Taylor knows the museum has unique potential to teach students how to utilize visual arts skills of design and presentation to effectively communicate their findings from scientific research projects. "Tragically, most school systems don't think that way--science is science and art is art," Taylor explains. He and the rest of the staff are proud to be playing a leading role in redefining the ways art museums can work with science resources like UCRA to better serve their community, "I think there's something quite radical and potentially transformative happening here," says Taylor.