Project Spotlight: Authentic art making as a vehicle for connecting to STEM learning and careers

Project Spotlight: Authentic art making as a vehicle for connecting to STEM learning and careers

Monday, May 15, 2017

STELAR had the opportunity to catch up with Susan Rodgerson of Artists For Humanity, Principal Investigator for the Authentic Art Making as a Vehicle for Connecting to STEM Learning and Careers project. Artists for Humanity and Education Development Center are collaborating to develop and study a model for using authentic art-making to promote high school students' interest in STEM learning and STEM careers. The project builds on a highly successful Artists for Humanity out-of-school-time art and design program for Boston youth, which uses an apprenticeship model to educate under-resourced youth through mentor-guided creation and sale of artworks.

Can you share how your ITEST project impacts youth?

AFH’s central program, the Youth Arts Enterprise, employs 250 Boston teens annually during their crucial out-of-school hours: Tuesday-Thursday from 3:00-6:00PM during the school year and Monday-Friday from 12:00-5:30PM during the summer. Following a paid apprenticeship model, AFH partners teens, with little or no experience, over a prolonged time period with professional artists and designers; 70% of youth participate for more than one year. 97% of AFH’s participants are from low to very low-income families and 94% are teens of color. The gap in Science achievement between white students and black or Latinx students may begin in early childhood, simply from differences in general knowledge. AFH’s ITEST project not only increases youths’ general knowledge and business knowledge, but also helps youth see themselves as problem-solvers sought after by businesses in the innovation economy.

Mentors help participants recognize the relevance and use of STEM concepts they encounter at school as well as helping them learn cutting edge STEM concepts being used and developed by STEM business clients.

What excites you most about the work you do every day?

Some of the things that most excite us about our work every day involve having youth and art/design mentors collaborate on innovative projects – like whimsical bike racks for Hyde Jackson Square Main Streets; commemorative graphic portraits of outstanding African Americans in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics for the Edward L. Cooper Community Garden and Education Center in Roxbury; and an 8’x8’ sculpture of the recycle symbol comprised of aluminum and recycled bottle caps for Logan Airport – that promote active learning and advanced 21st Century Skills development in creativity, media, collaboration, technology, critical-thinking, problem-solving and STEM concepts. AFH mentors are excited every day by the creative ideas AFH participants come up with and helping them to realize and develop those further.

The projects we pursue and complete all yield different STEM content knowledge, which is why we are working to document what teens learn, in order to preserve and communicate it to future cohorts as well. Some of the STEM concepts relate directly to execution of the art/design work and some are involved in the content the project needs to communicate. Every project is new and our teens are learning how to learn flexibly, how to define a problem, and how to tackle challenges systematically.

How did you get started working in the area of STEM engagement and workforce development?

Artists For Humanity’s (AFH) mission is to provide underserved urban youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design. Bridging economic, racial, and social divisions, AFH restores urban neighborhoods by introducing young people’s creativity to the business world.

AFH began in 1991 when several Boston youth sought to continue working with Susan Rodgerson even after a collaborative mural she initiated with their school was complete. AFH’s first commission, for a T-shirt design, came from a student club at MIT. Because creating good design to satisfy real clients requires understanding the clients and what they want to communicate, Rodgerson realized that commissions from practitioners in Boston’s innovation economy offered important opportunities to introduce AFH participants to a in a wide variety of STEM fields. Proactively pursuing commissions from STEM clients gives AFH’s hardworking, creative teens authentic reasons to engage with economically relevant STEM concepts.

What is unique about your work?

AFH’s work is somewhat unusual in the STEAM space because the A in STEAM is foregrounded. AFH’s authentic art-making for the Youth Arts Enterprise is unique in the after-school /informal learning context because it’s a job for the teens. We pay them so they can afford to be here, but also to communicate that creative problem-solving has value in the world. Unusual for early work experience, AFH involves teens in substantive discussions with clients who seek their ideas, putting them on partnership footing. AFH seeks STEM-business clients who are willing to serve as “resource partners” educating the teen artists about their professions and in the process giving the teens an entry point to contribute to their fields. On the flip side, these introductions help break down societal biases as clients encounter the truth and beauty of diverse urban teens’ ideas and vision.