“I Walked Into a Middle School Science Class With Some Paint Brushes and Here’s What Happened”
A few years ago, I was working at a middle school as an arts integration teacher. My charge was to promote the benefits of STEAM projects and incorporate the arts into classes you normally wouldn’t find them. As someone who has been writing and speaking on the topic for years, it’s a role I truly enjoyed—but on the day I had to walk into a science class with paint brushes, watercolor paints, paper, and cups, I admittedly had to muster up a bit of courage.
The teacher was, well, a confirmed STEAM skeptic, and this would be his first substantial arts integration lesson. Plus, the students were obviously used to sitting at their desks and not used to having an arts lesson in this particular class. I needed to be absolutely sure that the watercolor lesson I was about to teach meshed well with the curricular outcome of understanding the differences between high- and low-pressure weather systems. Otherwise, a STEAM lesson would just be a “fun” activity and not integral to the students’ education. No pressure or anything.
Needless to say, the bar for success was set high. Fortunately, I was ready with an awesome plan, and as soon as I opened the door, I knew it’d work out well. (Spoiler alert: it did!) Here are the steps I took, and the steps you can take, to execute a successful arts integration lesson:
Cultivate a relationship with the teacher
Okay, so this teacher wasn’t my best friend, but I attended co-planning with him, listened to his ideas, and demonstrated that I valued his opinion. If you are an arts integration specialist, you can sometimes be viewed as an outsider who takes the teacher off tracks from their daily teaching routine. If you take the time to understand the teacher’s concerns and anxieties about using art in science class, however, you will go a long way toward successful collaboration. It is especially key to show the teacher exactly how an arts integration lesson will connect to, in this case, science standards and the expected student outcomes.
Scaffold the lesson
More often than not, arts integration specialists try to do too much too soon. The way I scaffolded the lesson made it accessible to the students and easy to understand for the teacher, and served as a formative assessment tool for me to make sure everyone was connecting the art with the science. In other words, go in phases. Take baby steps. You’ll get to the painting eventually!
Start with an easy-thinking routine like See-Think-Wonder
In this case, I shared watercolor paintings by masters that clearly demonstrated high-pressure systems (good weather) and low-pressure systems (rainy weather). Before the students ever created anything, they learned how to look at and discuss great art through a scientific lens.
Use “sketching for understanding” to begin the artistic process while learning the content
In this next step, I asked the students to copy a simple diagram of a high- and low-weather system labeled with the corresponding vocabulary. They had a time limit of about 5 to 7 minutes. After the students copied the diagram, they studied and memorized it. Then, they flipped their papers over and were told to redraw the diagram and label it from memory. This allowed them to use visual thinking and short-term memory to capture as many details as possible. When they finished, they partnered up and compared both diagrams, and then had the opportunity to edit their diagrams.
Teach the fundamentals of the art form
Before we jumped into the actual painting (that’s next), we took a crucial step in the arts integration process—teaching the art form. Each student was given a piece of watercolor paper and folded it into eight sections. For each section, the science teacher demonstrated a type of watercolor technique: wet on wet, wet on dry, dry on wet, dry on dry. Teaching the art form is critical for authentic arts integration. And this is critical too: The teacher does not need to be an accomplished artist to teach these techniques! Students want to see their teacher participating and learning alongside the students. So, if you’re the classroom teacher and not the arts integration specialist, don’t be fearful of teaching the art form. Go for it!
Encourage creativity after you establish clear criteria for success
Next up: turn them loose and let them create! Both the teacher and I walked around the room, asking students about their choices—color, brush stroke, and how they corresponded to the weather systems. By this point, I could tell the students and the teacher were definitely enjoying the shakeup to their routine.
Showcase the work and have a rigorous discussion
We closed the lesson, done over two days, with a rigorous discussion about what makes a great watercolor painting and how each watercolor clearly showed a high or low weather system. Through the group discussion, the teacher was able to accurately assess the students’ progress—both artistically and scientifically.
So, there you have it! By the end of the lesson, the students were engaged, creative, and ready to learn more. (The once-skeptical science teacher even did the lesson on his own without me this year!) You can inspire that same creativity and turn STEM into STEAM. Don’t just walk into a classroom with a bunch of supplies—walk in with a relationship with the teacher, a clear link to the standards, plenty of examples, and an organized plan to help students learn.
And more importantly, believe in STEAM! Great scientists are great visual thinkers also. They rely on the power of observation whether it’s through nature or through a microscope. Learning to look at and identify details is a critical skill we can get from art. We must remember that Da Vinci, Darwin, Audubon were phenomenal visual artists in addition to scientists who had to have these skills to capture their observations. (And they did pretty well for themselves!)
Rob Levit is a teacher, trainer, and facilitator who has worked extensively with schools and nonprofit clients. His inclusive and interactive approach creates avenues of communication that encourage participation from those with different learning and personality styles. His areas of expertise include arts integration and STEAM with an emphasis on creating simple and effective strategies to integrate arts into the curriculum. Learn more here.