The World Dances -- So Should Schools!

The song goes, “Animals in the mountains, hey yo hey yo. Animals in the mountains hey yo hey.” When the song stops, the teacher (in this case, me) calls out an animal native to the Himalayas, and a group of 30 first graders who live in rural mountain villages in Ladakh (in the Indian Himalayas) channel their best snow leopards, yaks, mountain sheep, and eagles through dance. The youngest students speak almost no English, and I speak almost none of the local language, called Bolti. But within 30 minutes, the students are forming food chains and depicting their local ecosystems through their own animal inspired, improvised choreography.

I am fully biased toward loving this instance, but it’s only one of many examples of arts helping students to learn about various STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) subjects. Educators are increasingly realizing the value of desegregating arts and science. The pedagogical model is called STEAM (add Arts to STEM), and the approach is helping students with different learning styles to enjoy and tackle technical subjects.

The Kennedy Center’s Arts Edge blog elaborates, "STEAM brings together what have long been thought of as polar opposites in the curriculum. However, the artistic process and the scientific method are more complimentary than we first might expect. Both are about exploration of ideas and possibilities. Both have a 'process' and a 'product' aspect to them. And both require students to engage in creative and critical thinking that supports collaborative learning.”

STEAM also goes beyond the “4 C’s” (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication) to help students assimilate STEM subjects through experience. For example, dance helps students explore math through the parsing of time signatures, geometry and spatial relations through staging patterns for multiple dancers, and physics through the embodied consideration of forces (check out this Ted video on the physics of fouettés).

The Georgia Ballet innovated an especially impressive STEAM curriculum, creating an Enrichment Guide and STEM Lesson for educators to integrate robotics with a field trip to see the ballet “Coppélia.” The lesson involves philosophical questions about the distinction between a conscious human and a sophisticated robot, like Coppélia, and different levels of programming challenges. 

Washington D.C.’s Wolf Trap Institute developed a program to support educators in implementing STEAM programs.  A study conducted by the American Institute for Research found that students in the early childhood development stage who participated in the Institute’s program absorbed the equivalent of an additional 1.3 months of learning compared to peers in a control group. Learn more about the Wolf Trap program here.

STEAM education is not only effective; it’s also inspiring. Back at the school in the Himalayas, one of the top performing biology students tells me she wants to be a doctor because of arts education. “When I was younger, we would do performances in school. I played a doctor in some of these and realized how good it would feel to help people like that in real life. Now I am studying and hoping to major in biology and go to medical school.”