Full STEAM ahead

Environmental science taught through music and art at CSMA

School may be out for the summer, but some kids are back in class and taking a curious course at the Community School of Music and Arts: environmental science taught through music and art.

The class, which runs through the end of June, shows that science and art are not mutually exclusive, according to Hilary Orzell McSherry, who teaches the class and has a master's degree in environmental policy. The class is part of an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between science, technology engineering and math courses, and the arts.

McSherry got the idea to create the class in Monterey when she participated in a 2010 grant program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal of the program was to get art and music teachers together to design a curriculum that encourages environmental stewardship.

McSherry says she designed her course around the concept of STEAM -- an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. STEAM is a modified version of the widely popular STEM fields that injects some of the arts back into the tech-focused curriculum. Through painting and playing music, the children are developing a deeper understanding and connection to scientific and mathematical subject matter.

One of the guiding principles in her curriculum was to emphasize the gap between policy changes and the social change that adapts to it.

"It takes a while for people to get used to it," McSherry says, explaining that people change their habits based on personal values about the environment rather than by forceful changes in policy or laws.

She started teaching the course back in 2010 and tracked kids through surveys to see if they changed their personal values. She says that the course has been very successful at not only changing how kids see their environment, but also in finding ways for kids to adopt lifestyle habits and act upon their newly developed values.

Things got a little tricky for McSherry when she started teaching summer camp to a different age group. The curriculum was designed for fourth and fifth graders, and suddenly she found herself teaching kindergarteners and first graders.

"Kids at 10 years might be more analytical and scientific, but environmental science is accessible to everyone," McSherry says. "We all have a connection to our environment."

This week, students learned about the rainforest, and how it covers 7 percent of the earth's surface but holds 50 percent of all life. McSherry teaches them about the different canopy layers, the animals that live there and some of the plants students might recognize -- like fruits.

Then students apply their new-found knowledge to art projects. They made paintings of the floor, understory and canopy layers of the rainforest. Then they paint in all the wildlife. They learn about the bright colors of animals in the rainforest that we don't see here such as blue frogs and yellow butterflies. Through their paintings, McSherry says kids can visualize how much life is concentrated in these rainforests.

Other times, the teaching and art activity are one and the same. McSherry says she and her students will listen to and even create music -- mostly folk tunes, that reflect the natural environment. Students listen to songs from New Zealand, which use sounds that imitate the ocean waves, or percussion instruments that sound like beetles. Sometimes they play the instruments themselves, or McSherry will play songs on the keyboard.

Through these interactive, artistic activities, the students learn that indigenous people used whatever was at their disposal in the natural world to make music and were interconnected with their environment, she explains.

McSherry says she was focusing mainly on the musical aspect of the course when she was teaching in Monterey, but started to incorporate more visual arts when she moved her lessons over to CSMA.

She says one of the hardest things about teaching the class is telling kids as young as kindergarteners about negative environmental impacts going on around the world.

"It's super challenging to teach them about the bad things going on," McSherry says. "If I teach them that forests are being burned down, they'll be worried that the forests they visit are going to be burned down."

So McSherry has a two-pronged approach: explain negative things in the least scary way and follow up those explanations with examples of proactive solutions. If she teaches kids about land degradation, she'll use images of dry and cracked dirt rather than dead animals to show the effect, then tell students what they can do to fix the problem.

These proactive solutions include watching the use of electricity at home, picking up trash and sending letters to people who run palm oil businesses. Because the kids are so young, McSherry says they are the most impressionable and more likely to adopt new behaviors.

McSherry says she's never felt compelled to go on a negative rant about people destroying the environment.

"The kids are too sweet and positive," McSherry says. "They're willing and ready to be empowered by what they learn."

McSherry says she also takes care not to push any sort of political agenda. She keeps her lectures scientific, and none of what she teaches is considered extreme in the scientific community.

In the future, McSherry says she'll continue to adapt her curriculum for Santa Clara County. The local curriculum focuses on building and designing tech solutions to solve problems. She says this year she'd like to capitalize on that problem-solver mentality and do a project called "design your own green tech" for kindergarteners.

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