Arts-Embedded STEM And Vice Versa. Melissa Silk at MoodleMoot Australia 2016

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Melissa Silk is a woman of many hats. As she spends her days around a block in Perth that includes the International Grammar School, her 1 year old venture STEAMpop and the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at UTS, she goes from professor to curriculum designer to entrepreneur to advocate.

In her talk for MoodleMoot Australia this past September, she showcased some of her projects, reflection of her overlapping interests. The first one involves the littleBits kits to teach electronics in K-12 level applied to a sonorous representation of mathematical functions. It makes sense that the rhythm of sine waves makes those more appealing over other sound functions processed by students with synthesizers.

Using technology to make art, or at least the process of making it, more desirable, goes beyond a neat activity. The deceptive simplicity of Silk’s presentation will slowly evolve into a fundamental statement about our current level of education, productivity and political empowerment. Her latest project, Disruptive Content, uses technology for artistic explorations. It is a statement on self-discovery.

If we can combine more subjects together, we’ve got the possibility of bringing more to a subject and taking way more away for our students.

Over time, Silk’s project begin to add more prominently elements of advocacy. She began by bringing teachers and education officials into the disruptive logic of the projects, with positive results. A piece named “The Possibilities of the Parabola” offered a radical and concise symbol that could kick off an educational revolution. Many of the innovations brought by Silk’s “hyperbolic thinking” are put in practice at the International Grammar School and in many cases affect courses developed in Moodle.

Her “STEAM”, Arts + STEM movement kept rising, and much of the responsibility lies in Silk. But not only because of her educational efforts, but her ongoing attempts to consolidate a global network of partners committed to art and technology applied to education. From San Diego High Tech High, to the University of Technology and Art Waku Waku. But this also meant that standards were key. Silk makes sure her curricula conforms to the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards of New South Wales guidelines.

For Silk, standards, much like art, are attempts to “make STEM visible”. Of course, she recognizes how through the latter the outcomes are much more inspiring. She has the habit of sharing the results of her students’ assessment in terms of grades, with graphic, computer-based and physical products made by them. Among the dozens of examples shown there is a 3-D maze made of plastic and created through mathematic algorithms. A competency by the project for her students, “probably the most important“, is:

[A]ppreciates the interrelationship between mathematics and the aesthetic of visual forms.

Which is an example of the thinking of which she would like to see more, especially by promoters of art. In Silk’s experience, a competency like that can be a provocation in many art schools around the world.

Design and the Elastic Mind is another of Silk’s artistic interventions into STEM communication and teaching. By now, we are witness to Silk’s encompassing set of “STEAM Engines” as they work on “STEAM Realities”. At each center, there is people from the arts and design trying to influence how STEM is taught and practiced, and the other way around. STEAMpop helps this and similar initiatives spread by listing free and open resources online. They also collect data for feedback. All of this in a collective effort to influence teaching and policy.

Silk concludes with her most ambitious project yet, “Lumifold”. It reads like a summary of many of the concepts from previous projects: origami, 3-D printing and electronics. Powered by tech and with an aesthetic purpose. Through Lumifold, Silk has sparked even more partnerships with schools and organizations. Make no mistake: Silk wants to change the culture of teaching by promoting more hands-on interaction with materials, and by blurrying the few remaining chasms between art and technology. In short, to embed art into STEM and STEAM into young minds.

Education should foster an unbreakable relationship between art and STEM. STEM could propel artistic and innovative possibilities. But art is what allows STEM to pursue a true purpose, a “personal voyage”. It just might be the only thing keeping tech from pandering to consumerism’s lowest common denominator.


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