STEAM Saves

Richard McGuire, Wash Hands, 2020.
Courtesy of Poster House, New York.

Art has been on the frontlines during this ongoing global pandemic, but not often where it is typically expected. Although attendance and programing at galleries and museums are understandably sparse in light of public health concerns; art is flourishing in hospitals and public spaces where it provides uplifting messages, and even helps to save lives.

STEAM based learning is an educational approach that combines the arts, science, technology, engineering and math to strengthen both skill-based logic and emotional awareness. Integrating the arts with the other aforementioned disciplines, affords humane and holistic responses to technically focused projects. Educator and curriculum designer, Anne Jolly (2014), explains that STEM subjects already have creative elements and crossovers with the arts and humanities. She states that “Art is often touted as a method of adding creativity to STEM—but keep in mind that engineers are rarely lacking for creativity and ingenuity. Just look at the world around you for proof. The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.” Jolly also cites proponents of STEAM, such as art educator Ruth Catchen, who asserts that adding art-centered learning to STEM disciplines can be especially beneficial for underrepresented students due to the often-engaging and personal nature of artful expression. Employing artistic thinking within technical and process oriented STEM projects increases students’ motivation and the likelihood of STEM success (Ibid, 2014).

“(Catchen) views art as a way of offering more diverse learning opportunities and greater access to STEM for all types of learners. Art also provides diverse opportunities for communication and expression. Ruth believes that in our technically-focused world, we have a responsibility to educate the whole child to become a global citizen in his or her community. She aims to do just that while staying true to the specific purpose of STEM education.” (Jolly, 2014)

Education departments in museums have also developed art-centered learning programs that are beneficial to STEM field professionals, educators and students. This is especially true at teaching museums, which are located within colleges and universities. One such teaching museum that embraces a STEAM curriculum is The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. The museum collaborates with professors from STEM departments to facilitate their utilization of the museum’s art collection in order to relate works of art to their learning objectives and lesson plans.

In a summation of the museum’s STEAM learning approaches, Liliana Milklova, the museum’s Curator of Academic Programs, describes how “Oberlin faculty in non-art disciplines utilize five broad models when teaching with original works of art, namely Visual literacy/Close Looking; Art as Cultural Context; Art as Conceptual Framework; Art as Primary Text; and Art as Creative Focal Point. A museum class visit typically is structured around two or three of these models and always includes one or more exercises in close looking” (Milklova, 2017).

Pop-up vaccine pavilion. Courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architetti, Milan, Italy.

The results of artful integration within STEM subjects are evident in the following creative and practical responses to the current widespread public health crisis. Art and STEM disciplines have cohabited through various endeavors, from designing signs that raise awareness about best health and hygiene practices (see: Quito, 2020 and Poster House museum’s #COMBATCOVID exhibition) to a much needed therapeutic release from emotionally taxing essential labor.

I recently wrote about how artists are creating symbolic masks that raise awareness about scientific and ecological awareness of major issues like global warming, air pollution, waste and pandemics (see: Poetics of Protection). Artists and craftspersons such as the renowned quilters of Gee’s Bend have shifted their practice of making exquisite quilts to focus on making functional masks to protect their close-knit Alabama community and ensure that there is an adequate supply of face masks for medical professionals (see: Dafoe, 2020). Along with face masks and social distancing, vaccines will help to ensure that COVID-19 is properly mitigated.

The optimism around vaccines for COVID-19 has brightened an otherwise distressing period of time. A STEAM initiative in Italy is utilizing art’s vibrant humanitarian nature to inspire the public’s embrace of the vaccine. The European nation plans to build 1,500 pop-up pavilions where people can drop-in to receive the vaccine. There has been a concerning trend in Italy (and elsewhere in the world) of misinformation around vaccines that has affected the opinions of significant populations within the collective culture. These pavilions, designed by architect Stefano Boeri, are embellished with comforting symbolism and sleek modern aesthetics, which public health officials hope will alleviate some of the tension and skepticism around taking vaccines (Picheta, 2020). Boeri’s design provides a spacious and minimal setting that diverts the sterile institutionalized feeling that is generally associated with medical facilities. Adorned with organic shapes resembling flowers and hearts, the pop-up vaccination stations provide a feeling of sanctuary and a sense of calm. They represent a much needed empathetic atmosphere for dealing with the seriousness of this current pandemic.

Artistic immersion is also important for the essential medical workers who have been working tirelessly to quell the coronavirus and provide compassionate care to their patients. In many instances, the toll of the work they do affects their mental and physical wellbeing, leading to severe burnout. One effective answer to dealing with trauma in the medical workplace, is to view, discuss and make art.

For several decades, pulmonologist Marc Moss has been researching how certain art-centered experiences can benefit medical students and in-practice medical professionals (see: Flock, 2019). At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Moss has assembled a team of doctors, artists and therapists to form the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab (CORAL). The lab looks for ways that particular artistic practices enliven the human experience and help relieve and prevent stress. The program is currently examining four artful avenues that can be implemented to help medical professionals maintain good social, emotional and cognitive health. The CORAL team explores, discovers and provides insights about how art, music and dance can be incorporated to help health care providers understand their own trauma, and find transformative solutions to burnout and psychological difficulties. A creative writing program for ICU workers gives healthcare workers a chance to express and share what they observe on a daily basis while they are at work.

Art honoring ICU nurses decorate a break room at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Photograph by Cady Chaplin

While medical professionals reflect on art as a type of therapeutic retreat, artists have been considering the heroic actions of hospital workers in recent works of art. A series of posters featuring artwork by seminal contemporary artists (including Amy Sillman, Elizabeth Peyton and Lydia McCarthy) honor healthcare workers. The posters were commissioned during a collaboration between two friends, a Brooklyn-based sculptor, named Elizabeth Jaeger and an ICU nurse at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, named Cady Chaplin (see: Dafoe, 2020). The artists’ posters provide uplifting symbolic messages in response to the nurses working on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic. They decorate a hospital break room for the nurses, providing an aesthetic sanctuary and artful respite for the heroes working tirelessly and passionately to save lives.


I have written extensively about art-centered learning across the curricula, especially integrating art into STEM projects. You can check out an archive of STEAM learning posts here and also be sure to download Artfully Learning’s ‘STEAM Pack’


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dafoe, Taylor. “The Famed Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make a Face Mask for Every Citizen in Their Small Alabama Town.” artnet, 13 April 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/gees-bend-masks-1831854

Dafoe, Taylor. “Elizabeth Peyton, Amy Sillman, and Other Artists Have Designed Motivational Posters for Healthcare Workers on the Front Lines.” artnet, 9 April 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/artist-posters-hospitals-1830036

Flock, Elizabeth. “Burnout is rampant among doctors and nurses. Can the arts help?” PBS.org, 5 November 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/burnout-is-rampant-among-doctors-and-nurses-can-the-arts-help

Jolly, Anne. “STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong?” Education Week, 18 November 2014. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-stem-vs-steam-do-the-arts-belong/2014/11

Milkova, Liliana. “Pedagogic Approaches to Teaching with Art in the Sciences.” Art History Teaching Resources, 12 April 2017.

Picheta, Rob. “Italy to build 1,500 pop-up vaccine pavilions, designed by architect Stefano Boeri.” CNN Style, 15 December 2020. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/italy-vaccine-pavilions-scli-intl/index.html

Quito, Anne. “The sophisticated design behind a simple coronavirus sign.” Quartz at Work, 3 June 2020. https://qz.com/work/1863420/what-effective-coronavirus-signs-look-like/

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