Engineering and arts integration? Yes- it’s a perfect match! What? How?? Well, let’s think about it. Engineers solve problems and create products by moving through a process that includes exploring, brainstorming, prototyping, testing and revising. This is an awful lot like what artists do! Laura Chapman, renowned arts educator, says visual artists look for answers to visual problems.

They employ an artistic process involving these steps: developing ideas, exploring and refining ideas, using art materials and techniques effectively and then evaluating the design. (Chapman, 1992). Likewise, the Artists Habits of Mind outline the following activities as inherent to studio art: envisioning, expressing, observing, reflecting, stretching and exploring.

If we think about it, all of the performing arts involve these activities as well! If this is so, artists and performers are pretty much employing the same design processes that engineers and scientists use to solve problems. A visual artist’s problem might be how to convey a social commentary through sculpture.

A dancer’s problem might be how to communicate the mood of the music or an idea through movement. I heard a musician tell students this week that he uses the design process when he is developing a show for his band. He has to decide what kind of music he wants in his show, he explores ideas for songs, imagines how the performance might go, plans the sequence in the show, practices, performs and then goes back and revises for the next performance.

This month I helped to coordinate the Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Schools’ Summer Arts Integration Institute for teachers. The overall theme this summer was STEAM: the process of combining STEM teaching and Arts teaching. The common thread I noticed among the sessions was how they were connecting the engineering design process to the artistic process. My ah-ha was: a really significant benefit of putting the A into STEM can be in helping students become more comfortable with the design process. If we are going to develop great scientists and engineers who think creatively, we should be taking the language of the design process out of the science silo and into arts infused classrooms where creative juices flow naturally. Students seem to feel freer to think outside the box and take risks in the arts. So… it seems to me that every time we integrate the arts into a STEM lesson and involve students in lessons where they are creating a product or solving a problem in or through the arts—we are also helping them to think like engineers!

Here are four examples of arts integration lessons that connect to the engineering design process that our teaching artists’ incorporated in the AI Summer Institute:

• Dramatic storyteller, Diane Macklin, referred to the steps of the design process (ask, imagine, plan, create and improve) when she had students imagine, create and perform new versions of a familiar fable. She started by relating the beginning of a fable—but stopped at the problem! Groups of students had to collaborate to complete the fable in new way and solve the character’s problem(s) by: adding a character(s) to aid in finding a solution, using an object that can be found in the natural setting and reinforcing a positive connection to self or others as the lesson learned for their new version of the story. Then, they put the story into their actor’s voices and bodies, dramatically shared the tale and revised the performance after feedback.

• Dance instructor, Ken Skrzesz, related how dancers follow steps that are nearly identical to the engineering design process: they envision and imagine the text as a dance, explore possible movements to communicate the ideas, test, practice (have a dress rehearsal of) the dance and then revise it for the final performance. His lesson incorporated a close reading of an informational text and an introduction to the elements of dance. The students used the elements to create ‘summary’ dances ghat communicated the main idea and details of assigned paragraphs in an article about volcanoes.

• In Visual Artist, Shyla Rao’s lesson, students examined and discussed surrealist art to entice their visual imaginations to look and think outside the box. The students were prompted to brainstorm social or environmental problems caused by current technologies (such as how video games can cause young people to be less physically active and promote obesity). Groups selected a problem to solve and designed a “surreal” prototype out of paper, cardboard, glue and tape that could hypothetically solve the problem. They followed the engineering design process to create multi-media surrealist art prototype.

• Musician Curtis Blues related how the blues artists in the late 1920’s essentially used the design process to build instruments and guitars with any resources they could find. In his lesson, the students designed, created and played their own diddley bows (1 string guitar) much the way the old blues artists did. He started by relating the design story of blues instruments: “In the 1920’s,

[poor but] aspiring blues artists asked themselves ‘How can I build an instrument from things that don’t cost money and would still sound good?’ The plan started with some wire from a broom, a few nails and old bottles. They began by hammering two nails about three feet apart on a piece of barn wood and stringing wire between them. The discovered that the sound was pretty weak because the wire was too loose. To improve the sound they wedged a bottle under the wire causing it to tighten.

But then [they realized] they couldn’t fret the wire (use fingers on the wire to play a clear note) so they started the cycle again and asked: ‘How can we make the different tones on the wire if we can’t push it all the way down?’ The plan: use common objects like pocket knives and bottles to press on the wire. They discovered that sliding these improved the sound. They designed slides with cut off necks of a bottle so that they could wear them on their fingers and not drop them ….” He then asked students to determine what the next design improvement could be.

So, engineering and arts integration?? Absolutely. What can you come up with?

Reference: Chapman, Laura H. Art Images and Ideas. Davis Publications, Worcester, MA, 1992 pp. 5-8