Lawrence Arts Center expands STEM learning

Julia Rathmel, 8, paints a sculpted figurine during a Raiders

Over the past few years, the Lawrence Arts Center’s STEAM education program — which integrates the arts with science, technology, engineering and math concepts — has grown from a 10-week camp to a year-round program.

The arts center first held the camp in 2012 and has gradually expanded its offerings to involve hundreds of students ranging from first through fifth grade. ARTspace, the center’s STEAM education program, now offers classes every day after school, over the summer and on days when Lawrence public schools are not in session.

But before that, beginning such a program in Lawrence was the aspiration of Margaret Weisbrod Morris, now the chief program officer at the arts center.

When Weisbrod Morris came to the center in 2011, she said, one of her main goals was to initiate a program focused on STEAM, an effort to incorporate the arts into STEM subjects. Since it began, demand for ARTspace has allowed it to expand, Weisbrod Morris said, increasing from 10 STEAM lesson plans to a full curriculum for first through fifth grades.

“Now we’re up to 160 lesson plans, and it’s ever growing,” she said.

The concept of integrating arts into education is nothing new, but over the past several years, as more educators and policy makers stressed the importance of a STEM-based curriculum, Weisbrod Morris saw it as an opportunity.

“STEAM is just another word for arts integration,” she said. “This whole STEM movement was a golden opportunity to push arts integration as a very effective way to teach kids complicated concepts.”

One of the reasons for the emphasis on STEM-based learning is that the number of such careers has been on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM jobs in the United States have grown at three times the pace of non-STEM jobs in the past 10 years.

Susan Tate, CEO of the arts center, said the STEAM lessons are developed by scientists working in conjunction with artists. The center developed its STEAM curriculum and expanded its programming with support from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Weisbrod Morris said she thinks that STEAM learning is not only effective in teaching STEM concepts because of how kids’ brains work, but also because it helps get them interested in the first place.

“If you’re trying to teach kids very complicated things, and you’re dealing with a large group of kids with different learning styles, it’s a very effective way to do that,” she said. “It kind of honey coats the pill, and kids have fun when they’re doing it.”

The arts center offers a preschool program as well as after school, summer and School’s Out classes for students in grades sixth through 12th. Tate said that no matter the level, she thinks what’s happening in an art or dance studio is a natural extension of what’s happening in the public school curriculum.

“It’s the chemistry of a ceramics studio — mixing glaze and understanding the firing process, the physics and movement in a dance studio or the perspective of line drawing,” she said.

Weisbrod Morris said one of her favorite examples of a STEAM project was the construction of a Rube Goldberg machine during a recent School’s Out camp, in which the students made a painting machine.

“There’s engineering in that, scientific method and design thinking — as well as forces and mechanics of engineering like pulleys and gears,” she said.

As the center has expanded ARTspace, it is also taking steps to include a wider group of students. Weisbrod Morris said the ARTspace after school program is visited by members of the Boys & Girls Club, which runs after school programs at all of the Lawrence school district’s elementary schools. The center also offers financial aid, funded in part by the city of Lawrence, individual donors and fundraising events, Tate said.

As ARTspace begins its fourth year of operation, the center is working on ways to evaluate it. Throughout the past year, the center has worked with the Kansas University School of Education to develop a learning assessment to measure how well the program teaches STEM concepts, Weisbrod Morris said. The center piloted the assessment this summer and has hired an evaluator to help implement the results.

“We’ll continue to use the assessment as a tool to evaluate the lesson plans and see if how we’re teaching them is working,” she said.

Students can enroll in ARTspace or any of the upcoming School’s Out camps on the arts center’s website. An upcoming wine tasting event is scheduled for Jan. 16 to raise funds for the center’s financial aid fund.