summer 2017


By Kelsey Denham

Two years ago, Prep kicked off its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) Initiative, encouraging interdepartmental collaboration and the melding of artistic and analytical studies. Combining these curricula has challenged faculty and students to think outside the boundaries of individual subjects, impacting their analytical skills as well as their self-expression.

In teaming up with science teachers, photography teacher Ricardo Rodriguez has witnessed a shift in his students’ work, to a more sophisticated creative process and final product.

“STEAM is changing how students approach disciplines, processes and tools,” he says. “For example, the microscope is something they associate with biology. But suddenly I’m asking them to create an interesting photo using a microscope. They’re a little unsettled at first.” Feeling unsettled, he says, is an important step in creative problem solving, something with which he hopes students become more comfortable. Other cross-disciplinary projects in the class include visual representations of data, infrared photography and 3D anaglyph photography. In addition to repurposing microscopes, students have used photo scanners as cameras to create captivating images. Students also get to make their own light-sensitive photo paper with the help of science teacher Heather Clark.

These projects empower students to push past binary thinking, Rodriguez says. “Time has to be built into STEAM assignments for them to play with the tool before they even start thinking about what they can do with it. Once they get more comfortable, I ask them,‘So, what can you do with it now? What are you going to communicate?’ They’re a little less afraid of experimenting after that.” This style of learning generates growth in all classes. Science Department Chair Laura Kaufman notices students’ genuine excitementin the discovery process of STEAM work, as well as the value of personal expression in subjects that are traditionally considered analytical.

“An interdisciplinary approach allows students to find strength and joy in areas they hadn’t previously considered,” she says. “A student who considers himself an artist can discover he is also a scientist. A mathematician can realize she is also an engineer.” Students learn to borrow tools and thought processes traditionally associated with one discipline for use in another.

This possibility for discovery isn’t lost on the students.

Mei-Li Okumura ’19 found that exploring connections between art and science enhances her expression. “It’s helped me see outside the box, and I’ve become more confident expressing myself. I feel less restricted.”

“I have always thought of myself as more analytical, but STEAM has taught me how art can be approached in a more analytical way and how science can be approached in a more artistic way,” Ryan Huntley ’19 reflects. “It has caused me to think more about how I am expressing myself and how people might view that.”

“When our students see that disciplinary boundaries are flexible and sometimes artificial, they think more expansively,” notices Dean of Studies Sarah Cooper. “The open-ended, creative thinking that the arts encourage meshes nicely with the experimental, inquiry-based approach that science cultivates. Both disciplines value the joy of unexpected discovery.”

Most importantly, seeing past traditional curricular limits encourages students to feel confidence in and take ownership of their education. Students of all subjects, strengths and inclinations learn to find and forge interdisciplinary connections for themselves.

“The first place I saw opportunities to apply this connection between art and science was in photography class,” Huntley adds. “Then I realized the applications are limitless.”

Bringing two subjects together “allows students to have more creative control over the learning process,” says STEAM Coordinator and science teacher Nick Ponticello. “When they have more control, they learn more.”

Rodriguez agrees. “We are getting them ready to solve unexpected challenges in creative ways. And through this process, they start to find their voice. That’s where the real growth is.”