The instructions are simple.
Take 20 spaghetti sticks, a yard each of tape and string and a single marshmallow. In 18 minutes, build a structure that can hold the marshmallow at the top without crumbling or tipping over.
Yeah, not so much.
Inside the Challenger STEM Learning Center, 18 teachers from around the region divide into teams of four to tackle the problem. Some build teepee-like scaffolding; some go for the tripod; others just can’t find anything that works. Concentration etches the faces, but laughter often erupts.
In the end, two of the four teams create structures that manage the ’mallow. The teepee stands tallest and stays upright the longest.
But engineering skill isn’t the point.
Responding to a challenge like this is a matter of reacting to failure, of shifting gears on the spot and not being afraid to try new things, says Scott Rosenow, a teacher at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts who led the spaghetti challenge. Perhaps as important as anything else, though, is collaborating as a group. “I saw a lot of hands working together,” he praises.
Those are some of lessons being taught in Arts Learning Lab, a four-day program showcasing steps that teachers can take to integrate art into other subjects such as math and science and history. Music, for instance, can be used in math to teach fractions since whole notes can be split into half-notes, then quarters and down the fractional line into eighths and sixteenths.
“I want to spread the arts and try to make people understand that art is not a separate thing and it should be worked in with the engineering and the math and with science,” says Angie Carson, music teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and one of the Learning Lab participants.
Pairs of elementary school teachers from Hamilton County, Whitwell, South Pittsburg and Jasper in Tennessee and the Georgia Department of Education attended the program, which will repeat next week with teams from middle and high schools. The pairs feature an art teacher, be it music or visual arts or theater or whatever, and another from a classroom subject.
The lab, funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission, takes its goals seriously, but its methods are less so. The teachers are asked, among other things, to make to “stick bombs” (think dominos combined with a sculpture) and to take Legos pieces and illustrate “What you’d be doing if you weren’t here.”
They also observe first- through third-graders attending academies for STEAM, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) to see how they react to the combination of arts and other subjects.
Bringing art into the mix can help classroom teachers discover different angles for teaching their particular subject, says Laurie Melnik, executive director of the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts and one of the facilitators of the learning lab.
“They’re finding news way to renew content, to take the subject that the teacher has taught multiple times and finding a new way to teach,” she says.
But some classroom teachers are reluctant to embrace art because they’re unfamiliar with the content, says Carsen, who earned two degrees from UTC, a bachelor’s in music education in 1979 and a master’s in elementary education in 1985.
“I think a lot of the classroom teachers will be afraid to try anything that has to do with the arts,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t know how to do drama and I don’t know how to sing and I don’t know how to draw.’ That kind of thing. So they stand back from it in fear of it.
Karen Carden, Carson’s partner in the Arts Learning Lab, teaches kindergarten at OLPH and says that, unlike older folks, young children don’t any fear of trying new things.
“The children know they’re great singers and they’re great dancers and they’re great actors, so I try to pull all those in anyway,” she says.
Joel Baxley, director of visual art education at the Southeast Center, says integrating art into other subjects reaches beyond art doesn’t mean the student can only become a fine artist is way off the mark.
“If we’re doing our job right as teachers, then we should not only be interested in a subject,” he says. “We should be interested in the learning process of these kids.”
Baxley tells the teachers that, in the past, the idea of dividing art from other subjects was inconceivable. Ask Leonard da Vinci whether he was an artist or a scientist wouldn’t make sense to him because, in his mind, one wouldn’t work without the other.
“He would’ve been confused by your question.”