Getting STEAMy

So, STEAM. It’s my cross-curricular curriculum of choice. I’m doing it now, as we speak, I even presented with my colleague down in Richmond this summer at the NCGS convention, but I haven’t mentioned much about it this past year. It was my, or I should say our, first year last year. So, STEAM, who, what, when, where, why?

engineering process

I need to begin with a little background information about what truly started my foray into cross-curricular work. It was a discussion over dinner, after work, with my colleague LaShonda Torbert the Physics teacher at our school. She was explaining to me how one of her students had opted to make a video instead of giving an oral presentation on her group’s energy audit project. This was a physics assignment that entailed auditing energy usage in different parts of the school. What struck me was that the student was using her video making skills, from my class, in the physics classroom. Besides being like, “Oh gosh! I’m so proud…” I also thought, “Hey! How do we make this happen again, and better, and more often, and more intentionally?” A Physics to Art connection!

So LaShonda researched artsy science projects and I did research on cross-curricular education. I mean, I think we all know it is best practice for educators to help students make connections with other subject matters, but before we went and presented this to the administration we figured we would probably need to be able to articulate why.

So there is some great research out there, and whether it’s called cross-disciplinary, cross-curricular, or interdisciplinary it’s all good! There is a wonderful quote by the British philosopher Lionel Elvin that states, “When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.” Another more modern scholar, Mary L. Radnofsky reminds us that, “One of the ways in which we can help to enlighten our students is by giving them the opportunities to see and hear things in different ways from those which they are accustomed. This could mean studying science from an artistic perspective – something Leonardo [DaVinci] did frequently in his life, as he saw vision, light, stars, and the production or reflection of light from the aesthetic perspective – or studying art from a scientific point of view – something Leonardo also did throughout his life, as he strived to prove that painting deserved to be considered a ‘qualitative science.’”

And as it turns out, my biggest, most successful, cross-curricular initiative so far, has been my STEAM initiative. Which I am currently tackling with my partner in crime, LaShonda the Physics teacher. So I’m going to tell you more about it in detail, along with a few other cross-curricular initiatives I am working on. My collaboration started when LaShonda and I, we started the same year at Stone Ridge, began to go for a happy hour drink after work. We don’t actually do this frequently anymore, back then we were unmarried, and more carefree. I now have a fixer upper, and husband. I mean the house I just bought is a fixer upper, not my husband. LaShonda is busy with her life outside of school, too, so anyways I’m getting off track.

We realized, through talking about work that we had a HUGE overlap of students. Foundations of Studio Art is the prerequisite for all other levels of visual arts, and visual arts is our biggest arts department compared to orchestra, choir, and drama, so long story short my four sections of Foundations of Studio Art are attended by 75-80% of our Freshman class. LaShonda teaches four sections of Physics; our required ninth grade science class. There are 5 sections total with another teacher taking one of those Physics classes, and so LaShonda teaches about 80% of the freshman class and 100% of them take Physics.

So as we researched Art and Science cross-curricular stuff we had to accept that what we were embarking on could easily fit into the current educational trend called STEAM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. A lot of what we wanted to foster was similar to the goals of the Maker Movement, things like using the engineering process in both classes. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel we looked to these movements for inspiration. Unfortunately, Pinterest and the rest of the internet is so full of elementary age appropriate artsy science projects that it was hard to steal other people’s ideas directly. Instead we’d have to design our own projects.

Our first brain storm session went something like this:

LaShonda: “What do you guys learn first?”

Me: “The color wheel and movie making, what do you learn first?”

LaShonda: “Sound waves and the electromagnetic spectrum!”

Me: “Oh cool, we should focus on the sound happening in the videos to reinforce their sound waves unit.”

LaShonda: “Yeah, and Physics can compare the light and pigment color wheels, we can talk about visible light and color in both art AND science!”

Me: “We’re brilliant!”

More ideas came up and we lined our units up side by side. LaShonda even let me have access to her excel spreadsheet that broke down each of the required Physics Units even further. It is worth pointing out here, that while her curriculum was fixed, mine was not, so I was free to move things around to suite potential connections more easily. However, I then had to work backwards as far as planning my incorporation of different artists and their movements. So it was still pretty tricky. I was trying to bring physics into art just as much as I wanted to bring art into physics. I can imagine, if you don’t have the flexibility and autonomy that I do, you could easily remove half of the initiative I’m explaining here and imagine that you could modify it to be just art enhancing science. So we embarked, with our administrations vague approval to try something new.

Curriculum Line-Up

To begin the school year LaShonda asked me to help her kick off the year with an art project. And like I mentioned before they begin the year with a study of waves and sound. She wanted the girls to create visual representations of sound waves and illustrate how they vary. So we brainstormed all of these great ideas: Bracelets with beads to represent different wavelengths, paintings of sound waves, posters about sound waves, videos of sound waves, and even large scale recycled art sculptures about sound waves… Unfortunately, LaShonda liked ALL of these ideas, so after purchasing a large number of art supplies she explained the concept to the girls and said, “Go!”

See this didn’t really work out great as far as classroom management and cleanliness was concerned. There was junk everywhere, and she could hardly keep track of who was doing what. One student made a poster shaped like a violin with each string mimicking the sound waves of some series of notes, and another student was making that bracelet I mentioned, while another just hung out in the corner and splattered paint. Literally. She was making a splatter paint on canvas, representing a soundwave. And the most important thing to mention is the Rubens tube. See this link:

Now after all of this the Physics classroom produced some pretty quality works of art, but it was clearly a bit stressful on the teacher’s side, including the classroom management, time management and grading aspects. My suggestions were the following: Limit Materials and let the students use their creativity and ingenuity within the limits of those materials. Create sample projects so that you the teacher have an idea of the time limit you should place on the project, and finally, use vocabulary that they have already learned in the classroom. There is no reason that color theory should be forgotten just because they’ve left the classroom. However, for vocabulary LaShonda and I would need to spend even more time together, working, and coordinating. And as you all know time is precious during the school day. So it was difficult.

On my side of things I was encountering similar successes and pitfalls. As I began my light and color unit I had my students sketch and take notes in the same notebook as they were using in Physics, except some days they had turned it in to be graded, and other days it was home because they had too much to carry every day and Physics fell on the opposite day of the rotation… But not to worry, we still charged ahead with our color theory unit and painted our single object still lifes with objects that interacted with light. Unfortunately, while these two units fit beautifully together in our minds, we saw little to no connections being made.

By the end of the year, we saw it wasn’t enough just to leave room for coincidence, but that we would have to ask our students to literally verbalize any and all connections, and also require them to try, and support them in this. A great example can be found in LaShonda’s end of the year project last year. It was all about coding using the arduinos. These are small computers I barely understand. Instead of leaving it up to the students she gave them each an arduino, LED lights, copper wire tape, and cardboard, paper and glue. Then she assigned them a Physics concept and assigned them another class. They had to make a work of art that did something based on the arduinos programing, that had to do with the assigned subject.

I don’t want you to think our project was a bust, it was quite the opposite. These are some photos from my unit on recycled art, that coincided with LaShonda’s energy audit unit, her unit that inspired this whole thing. For this project students actually spread awareness about material waste by creating sculptures from recycled materials, and installing them around the school. You can see exampels here: The green dragon is made of old green soda bottles, and the tree is made out of old cans and covered in our old table cover sheets of butcher paper. I had wanted to create recycled sculptures with my class for a long time, and this was the first time I had been able to really do it, and our Physics connection was a huge success on this project. We asked students to verbalize connections and they did! They could!

Here are some of the BIG lessons we learned. Our Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Expect Perfection, the Common Core wasn’t written in a day…
  • Rush (Rush to tell your admin, so they can start to facilitate, but don’t actually rush the planning process)
  • Expect your school to facilitate time for collaboration
  • Forget to schedule time for collaboration later in the year


  • Document! – have your students do this as well
  • Remember to get your students to verbalize the connections
  • Communicate with students and colleagues you’re working with – consistency is big
  • Schedule time to collaborate, and then schedule more…

LaShonda and I had the distinct advantage of liking each other, and sharing a friendship outside of school. However, If collaboration isn’t necessarily an option, I’ve also had great success sharing art with colleagues on professional development days. I’ve done a step-by-step portrait lesson, you’ve probably all taught this one before, it;s a classic, but you’d be surprised how many of your fellow teachers haven’t tried it! Fair warning the adults behave just like the kids. In other words, “Is this good!?” “Can you help me” “WAIT! WAIT I’m erasing my circle!” I would do this and then suggest that this is a fun example of proportion and ratios and might be useful in the math room. It also has the potential to become a history lesson with portraits of historic figures or portraits of a fictional characters in literature.

I have also facilitated other teachers in my school by just letting them audit my class on certain days. This is actually fantastic if the schedule allows it. Now, whether or not you can do this depends largely on your school’s culture, but at Stone Ridge we had a Drama teacher take an entire year of Spanish one classes. She took the exam and everything! When it has worked best for me is inviting teachers to visit me on a day when I am introducing a new program like Adobe Photoshop or InDesign. I have also let other teachers know that the large sketchbooks that I give my art students are fair game for drawing based lesson in their classes. I mean, there is no way they are going to use every page of that thing otherwise, there are like a million. (Although there is always that one kid who halfway through the year is like, “Can I have another?”) Finally I have also facilitated other teachers by doing the simplest favor you can imagine. Helping them figure out what art supplies to buy, for a certain art heavy project in their class. This is Usually one they have already developed, but want to improve on.

I feel like I’m trying to sell you something, but I am convinced that you can do this too! (For my art teachers reading this.) The benefits of creating or facilitating a cross-curricular initiative are vast, and the process is simple. You could do this with another colleague just by sitting down, laying out your curriculum, and seeing where connections could be made and emphasized. If it’s possible, look at how you could re-arrange units in order to make connections. Or think about enhancing an already existing unit. See what your colleagues are teaching and make suggestions. If you have a standardized curriculum with less flexibility, study the curriculum document for potential overlap and connections. Keep in mind, the more enthusiasm you have in your cross-curricular initiative the more awesome it will become. The more awesome your department becomes the more valuable your department becomes to the school as a whole, and then BAM! more money for your classroom…maybe. Either way the positive attention from administrators can’t hurt and it does put you in a great position to ask for more supplies. So in conclusion, if you’d like to spend less of your own money in the Target $1 discount bins, and more time enjoying yourself, cross curricular.

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