Exactly fifty years ago, the British writer C.P. Snow famously likened the arts and the sciences to “two cultures” so alienated from one another that it imperiled humanity’s ability to intelligently address the world’s problems. Today, the “two cultures” diagnosis is still valid. In this spirit, a new program called ARTStem, a program of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, confronts UNC Tomorrow’s mandate for “global readiness” by spotlighting the need to innovate teaching and learning practices that harness together the power of the arts and STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
In early August, ten UNCSA academic and arts faculty members (from the high school and college academic programs, film, dance, drama, music, and design & production) and eight from R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem (from a variety of subject areas) gathered for a four-day seminar exploring the intersection of the arts and STEM fields. Participants prepared for the seminar with pre-distributed readings ranging from literary studies to complexity theory and computer science to contemporary theories about the nature of creativity and innovation. The seminar included roundtable discussions and other activities, including screening films about quantum theory and the art and math of origami, a lecture about the arts as a window into evolutionary psychology, and a field trip to cutting-edge data visualization and motion-capture labs at Duke University.
In the year ahead, ARTStem participants will capitalize on connections and ideas cultivated during the seminar to forge a set of creative teaching collaborations at both UNCSA and Reynolds High School. “There’s a real appetite for cooperation, both between faculty who work in different fields at UNCSA, and between UNCSA and public high school teachers that we’re partnering with,” says ARTStem’s Project Director, Mike Wakeford, a United States historian who teaches on UNCSA’s Undergraduate Academic Program faculty.
But why would UNCSA, the state system’s sole conservatory for the arts, spend time thinking about the STEM education?
For starters, it expresses a commitment that UNCSA shares with the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts to strengthen its connection to K-12 public education. With public schools urgently being challenged to boost achievement in STEM subjects, along with the particular problem of teacher retention in those areas, ARTStem strives to creatively respond to today’s public education agenda. Second, we all share the common goal of wanting to produce students that are ready for the challenges they will face in the global marketplace. Third, the focus on STEM is a chance to “pull the curtain back” on a simple, but perhaps surprising, truth: much of the “arts” work at UNCSA is, in fact, applied science (in film, sound design, and lighting design, for example). Faculty in those and other arts fields have a lot to bring to the conversation about the close relationship between learning in and across the arts and STEM areas.
But most importantly, says Wakeford, “ARTStem proceeds from the belief that the great power of the arts resides in their unique ability to re-present and re-narrate the world to itself, to translate big ideas to broader publics, and to pose critical questions about the human condition.” Artmakers and storytellers have always been, and always will be, an essential part of how a society comes to understand and ask questions about advances in the sciences and technology. The faculty drawn to ARTStem, he reflects, “believe that the arts and artists are best served, and serve society best, when young artists learn to cast their intellectual nets broadly and to see themselves in a global, rather than insular, way. We have to nurture each student’s willingness to see an individual specialization—be it biology or dance, computer science or set design—as situated within ever-expanding networks of knowledge and practice.” To that end, ARTStem is trying to create opportunities for teachers to experiment, and to provide them some room to play, to connect new ideas, and to teach in new ways, with the end result being students that are prepared to thrive in tomorrow’s global village.
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