STEM in Art Class

I came across a very interesting post today by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post citing many of the benefits of art classes.  She talks about creativity, focus, collaboration, taking criticism, and other very general skills that can be carried over in just about any aspect of life.  She mentions the movement from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM (adding the arts) in school curricula.  I would add that there can be actual hard-core science, technology, engineering  and math lessons to be found in the arts.

Take a look at my elementary-school photography class:

A humble cardboard-and-construction-paper pinhole camera: One part sculpture, one part photography tool, one part science and engineering experiment!

*In working with pinhole cameras, students learn how light travels.  The image projected inside the pinhole camera is upside down.  Why?  Because light travels in straight lines and as it goes through the hole and is projected 180 degrees from where it started.  That’s Physics for fourth-graders, boys and girls!

*By looking at an old camera lens and turning the aperture ring to show how the iris changes size, I not only show how the camera lets in more or less light to make a picture, but also how the kids eyes work in the same manner.  Biology in action!  But why stop there?  The camera needs a certain amount of light to make a well-exposed picture.  This is done by controlling the size of the iris and the speed of the exposure.  The smaller the iris, the longer the camera has to expose the image to let in enough light.  Cut the exposure time by half and you have to double the size of the iris.  That’s ratios and that’s Math.

*Also in the biology theme, we have explored how we see in three dimensions by making 3D photographs.  A traditional photograph is only two dimensional.  It is taken from one angle.  But, if you take a picture with the camera while standing with most of your weight on one foot, then shift your weight to the other foot and take a second picture, you now have two pictures taken at about the same positions as each of your eyes would see the scene.  Your brain puts the two pictures together from your eyes.  Force each eye to look at only one of the resulting photographs simultaneously by either crossing your eyes or using a viewer, and your brain will put the two pictures together the same way it seams the different inputs from your eyes.

*If you have a darkroom, there are all manner of new Math lessons to learn in computing exposure times using ratios, mixing chemicals in the proper proportions, figuring out how long the film has to sit in a chemical bath from a chart or by using ratios to compute the next time in the series when the chemical temperature is too high or too low for the chart or half-way between two columns on the chart.  And, don’t forget that everything here is a chemical reaction from the exposure to the film in the camera right through to the fixer bath on the paper.

So what about other areas of visual art?

“…and since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art.” –Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

In drawing and painting, there is much of Math.  On the simplest level, there are shapes to identify and explore.  As we develop, we learn more complicated math.  Think about a young child’s drawing.  Typically, everything is flat.  The trees are all the same height.  Objects are lines up next to each other rather than layered.  As we learn to draw, we learn to think about how things appear smaller at a distance.  Perspective drawing is all Geometry in action.  

What about the chemical change the occurs when clay is fired and hardened in a kiln? Or the Engineering involved in creating a strong armature for a sculpture so it does not collapse?

Art is not a discreet entity.  It, like so much of life, involves math, science and engineering that we take for granted when we pick up our art supplies.  But, when we look at how we use the tools in the art studio or classroom, they can be used as wonderful tools not only to create art but to understand how the world works.





About heather

A third-generation, informally trained photographer, Heather Siple has been taking pictures since she was old enough to hold a point-and-shoot steady. Her work has appeared across the US and internationally in museums, galleries and publications. Siple is the founder of the photo group ArtLane PCG .
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