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Learning from MIT on STEAM Education

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About the Entity

Efforts to integrating arts and humanities into MIT’s curriculum has existed since the Institute's establishment. Particularly in the 1960s, the administrative aspired to further strengthen the arts of humanities through actively forging connections between the fields of science and engineering and the worlds of visual and performing arts. Embedding arts into education and involving artists in MIT’s science work has since then become a tradition.

 

Established in 2012, the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) is a cross-disciplinary research unit that further promotes the intersection of art, science and engineering. MIT CAST aims to create “new opportunities for art, science and technology to thrive as interrelated, mutually informing modes of exploration, knowledge and discovery.”

CAST’s “multidisciplinary platform presents performing and visual arts programs, supports research projects for artists working with science and engineering labs, and sponsors symposia, classes, workshops, design studios, lectures and publications.” Its activities fall into four broad categories: (i) cross-disciplinary classes, (ii) public outreach, (iii) residencies, and (iv) support.

 

We interviewed Katherine Higgins, Producer of Artists in Residence and Public Programs, to distill more insights about the work at MIT CAST and its implications for the K-12 space:

 
 

Setting the Vision

 

 

Learning Principles

 

The benefit of crossing disciplinary boundaries is highly recognized and promoted at CAST. Katherine believes that “the cross-disciplinary collaboration and desire for experimentation is what makes MIT unique”, and that “arts and science can function as mutually beneficial modes of discovery”.

 

The involvement of practitioners outside of the Institute in faculty’s teaching and research is also something that CAST actively advocates for, and it is particularly apparent in the Visiting Artists Program and cross-disciplinary classes that it supports (details to be further elaborated below).

 
 

Enabling Cross-disciplinary Learning

 

 

Curriculum & Instruction

 

Visiting Artists Program

 

The goal of the Visiting Artists Program at CAST is to “embed artists in the cutting-edge research and teaching at MIT, where scientists and engineers are open to artists’ speculative and hands-on way of working”.

 

Contrary to similar programs in other higher education institutions, the Program at MIT is much more “demand-driven” and “research-driven”, according to Katherine. The faculty members are the ones to originate the idea of involving ideas and are responsible for making such applications to CAST, with proper justification on how embedding art can be an inspiration for their work at MIT. CAST is responsible to facilitate the whole process, from handling initial inquiry process from faculty members, taking the application to a selection committee for approval, facilitating the outreach and sourcing of suitable artists, to ensuring that the collaboration is mutually beneficial for both the faculty members and the artists involved.

 

Collaboration can come in different shapes and forms. Depending on the needs from faculty members, the collaboration can involve having the artist(s) working at a research lab multiple times in a year for research and development, joining a professor in designing or teaching a curriculum, working directly with a group of students etc. The only requirement is that it must include student engagement and a public presentation. “There is no fixed formula,” remarked Katherine. “It all depends on the interest and objective.”

One example of such collaboration is a project about spiderwebs. MIT Professor Markus Buehler from the Civil and Environmental Engineering department was researching on the materials and structures of spiderwebs. CAST helped in forging his collaboration with Tomás Saraceno, an artist that was interested in exploring the geometry of spiderwebs in his artwork. The collaboration has eventually led to innovative art installations, as well as the design of a new technique in capturing 3D data of spider web that has positive implications for architects, arachnologists, engineers etc.

 

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:

In what ways will be involving external experts/ practitioners generate value to your school/ classrooms? Can cross-disciplinary initiatives and desire for experimentation be enhanced?

(An example can be engaging with environmentalists to enhance teaching practices for Geography and initiatives to promote sustainability in the school.)

 

How can schools create a support system/ mechanism that allows educators to initiate these ideas?  

Food for Thought for K-12 Educators:

How can the school facilitate arts and science teachers to work together in designing cross-disciplinary learning experiences (e.g. class, after-school workshop, field trips)?

Katherine acknowledges that not all collaboration has a tangible outcome. In fact, she stresses that portable, observable outcomes are not the determining factor of whether the program was successful. At many times, collaborations were much more experimental and were helpful in sparking new ideas and perspective for both the artist and the faculty member involved.

Cross-disciplinary Courses

CAST supports cross-disciplinary curricular initiatives that integrate the arts into the core curriculum and engage students from across MIT in creating new artistic work or materials, media and technologies for artistic expression. Faculty members at MIT can apply for the Cross-Disciplinary Class Development Fund for financial support as well as additional assistance for the design and implementation.

One example of a CAST-supported cross-disciplinary course is “Vision in Neuroscience & Art”. The class introduces students to core concepts in visual perception through the lens of art and neuroscience. Through different modes of learning, the course explores the neural and computational mechanisms of vision and their parallel manifestations in visual arts. It is a class co-created by faculty members and students across different disciplines, including Pawan Sinha (Professor from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT), Seth Riskin (Director of the MIT Museum Studio) and Sarah Schwettmann (Graduate student from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT).

 

If proven successful, some of these courses eventually become regular courses that students can enroll in every year.

 
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