The art of science

There’s a movement among advocates of STEM education—which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—to add “Art” to the mix, making it STEAM. The goal is to recognize the importance of creative thinking, in addition to applied arts such as design, architecture, and photography, in STEM projects.

But for Ellen Reid, executive director of Keystone Science School, it goes without saying—the “arts” have always been there. “We are not an arts organization, but we value art,” she said, naming a Girls in STEM retreat where they did stop-motion animation, as well as a summer camp adventure photography component, as examples.

Long a pillar of the local community, Keystone Science School (KSS) offers a wide range of outdoors and science-based programming including summer camps and field trips at its 23-acre campus, in addition to after school programs and educator training. It operates year-round, with winter field trips such as snow science available onsite for school groups, and after-school CATCH Camps at local schools.

“We incorporate science into everything we do,” said Reid—whether that means an overt focus on a topic like water science, or the scientific process incorporated into other experiences—such as piecing together clues to hunt down the pink gorilla, their unofficial mascot, during Adventure Week.

Within that, KSS aims to develop leadership, collaboration, creative problem solving, and civic engagement among its young charges. “I like to say we are building the next generation of well-rounded, thoughtful adults,” Reid said. “One of the ways we do that is by inspiring curiosity and critical thinking.”

Curiosity of course knows no bounds, and can lead to many meaningful outcomes, whether inspiring a process of scientific inquiry, an artistic exploration of a concept, or both. And that’s just one of the places where art and science intersect.

Another good example is the “design thinking process,” Reid said, referring to a methodology that begins with empathy—What do people need?—and progresses through steps including ideation, where multiple creative ideas are generated, followed by building, testing, and adjusting initial designs based on what is learned to bring an idea to fruition.

That process underpins another Girls in STEM offering, “Build-A-Thon,” which challenges participants to design and build model homes for a given climate by incorporating engineering and mathematics to make the structure work, as well as design elements to make it aesthetically pleasing, explained Lizzie Meyer, the group’s community programs director.

“Although we often treat art and science as different disciplines, many significant innovations have occurred at their intersection,” noted Deb Kelleher Spiers, who serves on the board of directors for both Keystone Science School and Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA). “Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing, ‘Vitruvian Man,’ is a wonderful example. Einstein’s theory of relativity influenced the Cubists in art. Animated filmmakers employ both digital science and artistic vision,” she said.

The two organizations teamed up starting in 2017, with KSS offering science-based family activities at the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts (BIFA) and WAVE festivals. Last year, KSS teachers led a bird walk in conjunction with the “Birdmen” act during BIFA, and “Water Aquatics for Kids” to study macro invertebrates in the Blue River during WAVE.

Last summer was also a first for a budding new relationship between the Breckenridge Arts District and Keystone Science School’s CATCH Camps—a series of affordable, 3-week summer sessions that explore a scientific concept. Through weekly field trips to the Arts District, campers had the opportunity to engage in creative projects designed to support and extend the science themes they were studying.

“One week the kids went to the pottery studio, where they not only learned about clay and slab construction, but worked on their aquatic ecology knowledge,” said Annie Markuson, KSS’ school-based community programs manager. “Each child cut out the shape of a trout, textured it, and learned what the different colored scales do for those fish,” she explained. “We had visited the fish hatchery in Leadville, so it was a good way to tie the entire week’s knowledge together.” Another week they made dream catchers, to tie into a theme of “dreaming big,” where the children were encouraged to set goals and push themselves to reach them.

“Some children don’t love the outdoors, or science,” Meyer admitted. “This gave them another outlet. Here we were able to have students for whom art is really their passion, who were able to explore.” Ultimately, she explained, “the key is to find many ways for the students to relate to the greater theme.” Some children might be drawn to constructing a birdhouse, for example, after understanding what the bird needs. “For others,” she said, “it might be about making a birdhouse that looks nice, that the bird wants to go to.”

Keystone Science School will offer children’s workshops again this spring at the 2018 WAVE festival—one on making solar ovens, and another on making thermo-chromatic slime, which changes color when exposed to hot and cold. The CATCH Camps are scheduled to return to the Arts District campus this summer, and KSS is planning workshops on geodes and lichens as part of the “Trail Mix” series at the 2018 Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.

Partnerships are essential to Keystone Science School’s ability to serve youth and educators, Reid said, naming a long list of partners including government, education, and nonprofit agencies, and lauding the community’s support in “helping kids get quality out-of-school care” through the CATCH Camps. Last year, KSS served approximately 7,600 youth and educators. “We couldn’t extend our mission to thousands of adults and kids every year without that support,” she said.

The BCA partnership came about in part thanks to Becca Spiro, director of learning and engagement, who taught Girls in STEM and other topics at Keystone Science School prior to her role with Breckenridge Creative Arts.

“The quality of our staff and the commitment they have to getting kids excited about science and learning is a huge piece of what we offer,” said Reid, who recently took part in a strategic planning process that defined “people, place, progress” as the organization’s focus for the next three years. “We get a lot of staff who are just starting out, and we want them to stay in education,” she said. To that end, KSS will continue to increase its focus on professional development moving forward.

Meanwhile, she said, much of what draws children back year after year—her own kids included—are the connections they build with their counselors, teachers, and mentors. “Sure the curriculum is interesting, but they’re not just coming for that—they’re coming for the relationships, for their friends,” she said. Ultimately, the experiences serve to connect young people to the world around them, whether through science, art, relationships—or all of those things combined.

“We want to inspire people to be curious about the world, to ask questions, to seek answers—and to not necessarily believe everything they read or hear,” Reid said. “We want to grow the critical thinker that’s innate in all of us, to be able to navigate the world—and science is the lens we do that under. You can’t do an experiment without asking questions, wondering, gathering data. That’s very transferrable to daily life.”

Keystone Science School //

Photos: Joe Kusumoto