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STEAM education movement blends art with STEM subjects

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Robert Rubio revels in the "rainbow of awesomeness" on his Arduino circuit board.

Projects at Mosaic Arts Center:

•Beatlab: Students compose their own music from the beatlab website and play it out loud at Mosaic Arts Center when computers are hooked up to speakers located on a stage on the other side of the room.

•Arduino: Students combine assorted bits and bytes of this open source electronics platform to make interactive technology that lights up or even rolls around on wheels.

•Superhero Design: Students develop their own superhero but must also apply the science of his or her powers. Like if the hero shoots lasers from their eyes, the student must research how lasers work.

AVONDALE – Alone, they are scattering of yellow, blue and green cords in a grey case. But when eighth-grader Robert Rubio gets ahold of them at this community arts center, he can create light.

With unwavering focus and practiced dexterity, he slowly connects the colored wires and small pins to an Arduino-brand circuit board. Thanks to his handiwork, a tiny light connected to the circuit board starts to alternate between blue and green.

Rubio said he’s come a long way since Marty Wesolowski, one of the instructors at Mosaic Arts Center, introduced him to this open-source technology.

“When he told me Arduino, I thought it was food,” he said later as he hooked up the small jumble of cords and circuits to a nearby computer.

Rubio is one of about 15 students who regularly visit the center to build these microcontroller kits, creating interactive electronic objects. But often, the kids don’t come for the machines. They come for the art.

The center joins a national movement to update science, technology, engineering and mathematics education – STEM education – with the letter ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ to make STEAM education.

Ellen Gergely, the center’s president and co-founder, said educators should look at that Arduino circuit board not only as a science project but as a creative design.

“If you are a mathematician, if you are a scientist, if you are technologist, you are an artist because all of it has creativity,” Gergely said. “Art is creativity in any form and all forms.”

And through that creativity, students are more likely to excel in left-brain fields like engineering, moving the U.S. further toward a successful education system, she added.

According to the World Economic Forum’s “2013-2014 Global Competetiveness Report,” the U.S. ranked 49th in the world for math and science education.

The ranking led President Barack Obama to push for STEM education in all American classrooms, and in his recent State of the Union address he said teachers pushing these fields “are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy.”

Last year, some members of Congress formed a bipartisan STEAM caucus to foster more innovative thinking.

But Gergely and other advocates say this isn’t enough. The arts are essential to any science education, she said.

“You can’t have an art project without volume and without measurement and without all of the pieces that people don’t realize that art is about,” she said.

Creative solutions in science are the key to America’s future, said Kim Richards, co-founder of STEAM connect, a San Diego-based platform dedicated to connecting business leaders, policy makers, teachers and nonprofits around arts and science education.

“If students aren’t challenged to think big and to think critically about problem-solving, it’s a little scary to think about how we’ll be in the future,” Richards said.

Volunteers at Mosaic Arts Center provide students with different projects to learn everything from physics to architecture. For example, one weekend the kids built rockets from paper, tape and a weight.

Wesolowski, the co-founder and creative director of Mosaic Arts Center, said many of the young people who visit the center are on free or reduced lunch. He and Gergely saw a need for an outlet in the community and became determined to create a hub for creative learning that also kept kids out of trouble.

The center’s wide-open, fluorescent-lit space is 5,300 square feet, which allows for all forms of creative expression, Wesolowski said.

Students can perform music and act on a stage in the corner of the large room, while a computer hub to the right of the entrance attracts swarms of students who want to play games after school.

The games work as an incentive to get them through the door, Wesolowski said. But soon after, the learning begins.

“We’re normal people, we’re not like rocket scientists. We’re just normal folks. So when they come in and we do an experiment like LED lighting or something like that and it goes horribly wrong, it’s actually funny,” Wesolowski said.

Like when eighth-grader Rubio wanted to change the brightness of his Arduino circuit board’s light, not everything went according to plan.

“So if I type ‘high’ it will . . .,” he said with proud concentration.

Then, “Why isn’t it working?”

After a few more minutes of rearranging cords on the circuit and code in the computer, the Arduino finally managed to do what he told it to create: “rainbow of awesomeness.”

Rubio said he aspires to enter the Maricopa Community Colleges’ ACE program, which helps students who otherwise may not consider attending college pursue bachelor’s degrees. He said he dreams to one day become a zoologist, entomologist or geologist and that Mosaic Arts Center will help him get there since it teaches him about technology he can’t access in public school.

SparkFun, an online electronics retailer, visited all 50 states on a national tour to promote STEAM education. In Arizona the company visited Gangplank, a collaborative innovation space based in Chandler.

Jeff Branson, education outreach coordinator for SparkFun, said the arts add a human element to research and development that science can sometimes lack.

“A great backstory comes from the humanities. So all of the computational stuff we do is pretty dry and sterile. And so you add the arts to it and then it becomes us teaching the machines to be more human,” Branson said.

Machines built with creativity in mind can work more efficiently as tools and improve human quality of life, he added.

Richards, with STEAM connect, said the concept behind STEAM is deeply rooted in history. Leonardo da Vinci not only gained fame as a master painter but also for his intricately designed flying machines.

“There’s so many examples in history that show the two together. Some of the greatest scientists and inventors in the world, ever, have also been amazing artists,” Richards said.