STEAM Team summer camp: Art, dance, science take flight for elementary school kids

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By Sunday, Sep 3 Learning
Sheela Clary
A student displaying his barred owl mask during the STEAM summer camp at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., where elementary school students engaged in a three-week curriculum exploring the life of birds, from artistic, scientific and dance viewpoints..

Pittsfield — Hope Sullivan departed in August from her post as Executive Director of IS 183 Art School of the Berkshires — to head up Spruce Peak Performing Arts Foundation in Stowe, Vermont — but before she left, she planted the seeds for the enactment of her grand educational vision. She dreamt of bringing together 800 students, from each of Pittsfield’s seven public elementary schools, for a free STEAM-themed (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) summer camp that would weave together the visual and performing arts, nature and science. This July, her dream took one big step into being.

As part of STEAM Team: An Exploration of Birds, 27 rising third graders, representing half of Pittsfield’s elementary schools, gathered on the campus of Berkshire Community College each morning for one, two or all three weeks, to participate in an ambitious partnership that incorporated staff from Jacob’s Pillow Dance, IS 183 Art School, Flying Deer Nature Center and the Environmental Science department at BCC. So many other camps are siloed for lower-income kids, Sullivan thought. She wanted to bring together the best teachers in the Berkshires for a free interdisciplinary experience for kids from a range of backgrounds and with a range of abilities, the better to learn from each other.

Students representing different avian species engage in a race to determine the fastest. Photo: Sheela Clary

Students representing different avian species portraying the motion of birds in flight. Photo: Sheela Clary

The diverse group of educators had met over the spring to craft a curriculum, and decided to focus on five local bird species, for the many qualities they represented: barred owl, great blue heron, tree swallow, chickadee and American crow. With Max Shapiro of Flying Deer, campers explored the natural world around the campus, with Tom Tyning from BCC they learned about the evolutionary purposes of different beak sizes and shapes, with Brielle Rizzotti from IS 183 they made masks and learned how to draw abstract concepts, and with Elizabeth Johnson from Jacob’s Pillow they danced the differences between soaring, gliding and flapping.

The big picture issue the team focused on was environmental stewardship, thus the choice of local birds, which also, being familiar to them, stimulated campers’ curiosity. As Tyning put it, “Kids already know some things about them. They are eager to learn more and in the science part of the week they got to look closely at feathers, watch bird behavior at the feeder and our natural areas, observed newborns in the nest boxes, and listened and learned songs and calls.”

Each participant was given a journal to record his or her findings and discoveries. One discovery led to another. On bird-sighting nature walks Max pointed out the call of the tree swallow, and also showed campers how to find edible plants and leaves. They collected these, and flowers, barks and pine needles, for later use in printmaking projects, which the kids found magical. Says Rizzotti, “The Queen Anne’s lace look like fireworks when you print with them.”

Perhaps the best example of interdisciplinary magic was what happened when Max and Tom explained the differences in three of the birds’ movement patterns. Flapping, for instance, is a symmetrical up and down motion. Gliding is a downward motion over a short distance. Soaring is upward motion sustained over a longer distance. Says dance educator Johnson of what happened next in her work teaching with Rizzotti, “First we worked with mirroring to understand symmetry and asymmetry. The kids drew that. Then we went outside and had one student go and their movement script was the glide, soar or flap. In this open space, we had crayons all over, and one improvising child dancing in the field, with the other children drawing their dance. It was gorgeous.”

A STEAM student learning the range and motion of a bird's wing in flight. Photo: Sheela Clary

A STEAM student learning the range and motion of a bird’s wing in flight. Photo: Sheela Clary

As with any big, new endeavor, there were logistical snags to unwind and fires to put out, like tracking down the camper who got on the wrong bus one morning. (She ended up at a camp on the other side of town, playing quite contentedly.) Not as many students signed up as the educators had imagined, so groups were small, but the low student to teacher ratio ended up as an advantage for all involved, allowing for much more one-on-one time than teachers normally get with students.

At least one educator was skeptical at the outset. “I thought this was going to be really weird,” admitted Tom Tyning, from BCC. “But,” he went on, “it was wonderful. I was impressed at everyone’s ability to keep kids excited.”

It’s unusual, if not unheard of, for four distinct organizations to join forces on such a long-term, time and manpower-intensive venture, especially on a shoestring budget, with financial support coming mostly out of existing resources. “The investment from multiple organizations is for me unprecedented,” said long-time dance educator Johnson, who works for Dance Exchange in Washington DC but has taught with Jacob’s Pillow’s since 2014, “and to collaborate with a visual artist around science content was new territory. There’s professional development that will live beyond this experience in the faculty, and therefore in the institutions they work for.”

Among ideas generated for future summers was to invite campers’ family members to view presentations of their children’s work, promote word of mouth among participants to generate interest and visibility, and actively seek additional revenue sources. (The only outside financial backing for this year’s pilot was provided through a foundation grant received by Flying Deer.)

But at least this year, a little bit went a long way. By the end of five days, everyone could identify the call of a tree swallow, could draw a dancing child without using stick figures, and understood why herons have such sharp, long beaks.

One little girl picked up her mask on the final day and marveled, “I made this out of nothing!”


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