“We know now that access to the arts helps creative thinking and it’s essential for 21st century economy and innovation,” says Susan Warner, artistic director at the Museum of Glass. “Cultural organizations help develop problem-solving skills in our youth and are central to the health of our communities.”
Few communities have the number and kinds of museums and arts organizations found in Tacoma. That gives them the chance to offer a wide range of programs to South Sound schools.
At the Museum of Glass, one popular program is the Science of Art. The interdisciplinary program was launched in 2002, long before STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) education became a widespread concept, and has served more than 6,000 youth in grades 5-12.
“At school, arts and science are taught separately, while in the everyday world, they happen together as a holistic experience,” Warner says.
To create that interdisciplinary experience, a museum educator first comes into the classroom to share a formal curriculum. Later, students visit the Museum of Glass for three and a half hours.
During the museum visit, students tour the exhibitions with a docent, work on a hands-on project with a scientist, observe a live glassblowing demonstration in the hot shop, and join an artist to explore the intersection of art and science in real life.
“Museums are educational institutions by their nature,” Warner says. “In many cases, what we’re doing is instilling a lifelong appreciation for learning.”
“Part of our challenge at the Seaport is to ignite that passion for self-learning,” says Wes Wenhardt, executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport. “After-school learning and outdoor experiences complement the classroom work.”
The Seaport Museum offers both formal and informal, land- and water-based programs. Last year, it piloted Oceans Transformed — Art with a Message at six Sherman Elementary School classes. Each class partnered with a local artist to build a sculpture from marine debris.
“Plastics in the ocean are a big problem,” Wenhardt says. “And about 80 percent of marine debris is from land-based sources.”
Students collected the debris and recorded related data. Before building the sculpture under the artist’s guidance, they learned engineering concepts such as compression and tension from engineers. Along the way, students kept a journal.
“The program incorporates STEM along with creative writing and thinking,” Wenhardt says.
In addition to integrating multiple disciplines and teaching critical thinking, the programs offered by the museums and arts organizations help students understand current events, says Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society.
“We can talk about what’s going on in our society now through art, history and museum exhibits in a way that schools may not be able to do through a formal process,” she says. “We’re able to complement the teachers’ goals.”
One highly successful program at the Historical Society is Washington History Day, part of National History Day. The society sponsors the project-based program at middle and high schools statewide.
Students create a project based on a central theme. They can choose a format such as documentary, original performance, website, research paper or museum exhibit.
Participants have the option of presenting their project at a regional event, and winners advance to state then national competitions. Washington state sends competitors to nationals every year. Last year, Redmond student Bobby Aiyer won gold at nationals in the category Junior Individual Documentary.
“I love this program because it’s project-based learning,” Kilmer says. “While history is an emphasis, we’re teaching kids how to frame an argument, research, write, and do a presentation — these are 21st century skills.”
David Fischer, executive director of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, says arts are also an opportunity to focus on the whole child and help with social and emotional development. That was the goal behind the center’s LENS Project.
LENS stands for learning, empathy, negotiation and sense of self. The after-school program “empowers students to strip away aggression, build relationships and practice what it means to live in a civil society,” Fischer says.
A professional teaching artist conducts weekly workshops at a partner school for 11 weeks with a liaison teacher. Students learn through exercises, storytelling and writing. The program culminates in a 20-minute performance based on a student-written script.
Fischer says participants show reduced truancy and anti-social behaviors as well as better grades. In its eighth year, the LENS project receives national awards and funding.
“What the arts do is break down the silos that we build around learning, and those silos can keep things in tidy little boxes — which is not the way of the world,” Fischer says. “The arts help integrate complex issues and put them into a story that helps kids connect at a deeper level.”