By Gretchen Minekime July 25, 2023
CU Boulder’s Elementary Arts Lab (EAL) is an interdisciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students supporting elementary school teachers with a multidisciplinary approach to teaching traditional science.
EAL founder and postdoc Emma Antonio believes it is important that members of our society have an understanding of science and an awareness of scientific processes. She wants children to see science in the world around them, and she believes the arts provide an access point for exploration and experimentation.
“I’ve seen kids understanding things often not taught until university because of the way EAL teaches difficult concepts and because we believe they can understand it,” said Antonio. “During COVID, we were online with a class discussing solids, liquids and gases. One kid disappeared from the screen. When she returned, she kept holding her hand up to her camera. She’d gone to get some cheese and told us that her hand wasn’t hot enough to melt it. I just thought, ‘Wow!’ She’d made the connection, gone to her refrigerator and brought an example. Kids learn quicker than we give them credit.”
When Antonio arrived at CU Boulder, she wanted to supplement her role as a researcher by doing outreach work—a practice she finds energizing. She sought like-minded colleagues within the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the Department of Theater and Dance. Early on, the team learned that their sweet spot was collaborating with elementary school teachers to co-develop curriculum and co-teach lessons so that content and approaches might also benefit future students.
For example, MFA student and EAL team member Katt Lott worked with a teacher last spring to teach first-graders about life cycles. Students read the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairytale and planted lima beans. They discussed the story’s beginning, middle and end and tracked the same phases in their plants’ lives. The students then moved through an obstacle course to help them embody and discuss the stages. Elsewhere, the wider EAL team and the classroom teachers instructed students about volume and pitch by having the children move like sound waves. Another lesson had students work with classroom objects as human machines to demonstrate force.
“Imagination is important, and we dismiss it as we get older. But coming up with new things—like batteries—requires imagination. This way of teaching content involves imagination, which is part of the interdisciplinary value. Art into science and science into art,” said Lott.
Students are frequently surprised to learn that what they’ve been doing is science.
“We’re trying to go in and do science without the kids necessarily realizing it at first. We want them to know scientists are people and that they can be scientists too. We’re taking down the myth that science is just a hard subject,” said Chemical and Biological Engineering PhD student Elizabeth Allan-Cole.
“Research supports the idea that informal settings, such as outreach programs, help historically marginalized students begin to identify as scientists and as part of scientific communities,” said Antonio. “I think EAL’s work helps make science more accessible to the elementary students, the teachers, and all of us at EAL.”
Antonio, Allan-Cole and Lott all recognize that EAL provides a fun environment to practice teaching, facilitation, communication and collaboration skills. The lab also offers a place of community for CU students, and working with elementary students provides tangible wins—a nice break from the daily grind. Combining art and science has helped these scholars learn one another’s academic languages and to realize that the processes of art and science both start with questions: What do we want to question or explore, for example, and what will we present at the end?
Twenty-one CU students participated in EAL during the 2022-23 academic year alongside five elementary teachers, Antonio and Tim Ogino, School and Teacher Program Manager for CU Boulder Science Discovery. There were 12 graduate students and nine undergraduate students representing the areas of dance, materials science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, music, biology, computer science and education.
One CU student shared that, in addition to building experience working with children and lesson planning in a group context, they gained insight into working with people from differing backgrounds.
Four of the five participating teachers recently completed a survey about their experience with EAL. Three of the four reported that the collaboration changed their thinking about lesson planning and found their interactions with CU students valuable and enriching. They also reported that the classes challenged their students’ expectations and improved their understanding and knowledge retention.
Lott worked with a teacher who wrote, “My students still know how the puffer fish defends itself due to the song Kat and I wrote and the actions the CU team and my students came up with together. My students asked when the CU team was coming back and often commented on how much they liked working with them (freeze game, obstacle course, small group time). Today, after our art exhibition, a parent commented on how much she enjoyed it and suggested that next year we do exhibitions earlier in the year to build the extended classroom community of families.”
Funding is in place for 2023-24 through support from the CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement, the Engineering Excellence Fund, the Materials Science and Engineering Program and the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department. Teacher training is underway, and EAL hopes to recruit 40 CU Boulder students to work with 10 teachers. If they reach their goal, all 10 teams will boast graduate and undergraduate students from across the arts and sciences. If you are interested in participating, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.