Tucked away behind Palestine's Southside Elementary School, the Curious Museum is more than a science museum; it's also a hotbed for research in one of the latest education trends: STEAM.

The new acronym adds the word “arts” to the popular STEM buzzword (science, technology, engineering, and math). More importantly, though, Curious Museum Director Lucinda Presley is exploring how integrating the arts with science can motivate learning.

Curious is an interactive, science and technology based museum at 1301 S. Royall Street in Palestine. The museum’s exhibits allow visitors to explore concepts like forces, gravity, motion and light, in a kid friendly, play-oriented environment. 

The museum is open to the public on Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on some weekdays to visiting school groups, but much of the museum's work occurs beyond its walls.

This month, Presley is testing new lessons that integrate the arts and sciences with students at Elkhart Elementary and Palestine Junior High School, thanks to grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts and NASA.

In Elkhart, second grade students are applying what they learn about textures and shapes in their art class to help them design wheels for the Mars Rover—which must tackle the red planet's rocky, sandy terrain. The 95 students in the five classes will use the scientific method, collaboration and problem-solving to complete the project.

Presley opens the lesson imaginatively: “I want all of you to be NASA scientists today.” 

At just 7 and 8 years old, NASA doesn't need the second grade students' help in designing the Mars Rover—but some day they will. They will also need to visualize, collaborate, explain and defend their hypotheses—valuable skills among all professions.

“The objective is to introduce these important thinking skills at an early age—and we hope to continue them as they grow older,” Presley said.

Presley said integrating art into the curriculum encourages students to use their creativity and gain motivation as they make more connections. Art teacher Pat Rainey designed a notebook of art concepts, including lines, angles, curves, direction, shape, form, texture and value used to support the science lessons.

The $5,000 grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, is being used to purchase materials and pay for training the five second grade teachers, who are observing how to teach other lessons integrating arts and sciences, and solve problems with higher-level thinking.

Presley said the project will provide data about student gains over the long term—into the fourth, sixth, and seventh grades.

Students at Palestine Junior High are focusing on how the Mars environment can affect human body systems and solutions to problems that may occur. The 120 seventh grade students will also write about their inventions to convince others they have effectively solved the problem. The N-ABLE grant from NASA headquarters is funding Presley's research with the older grades.

Other educators concur with the importance of integrating the arts. Tana Herring, director of special projects with the Elkhart Independent School District, said the project teaches students to learn in a multi-disciplined way that includes the arts. “There are many ways to learn things,” Herring said.

With the data she is collecting, Presley is finding evidence to back up theories about the importance of teaching the arts with science and technology. Presley's findings will be shared with other leaders in education, including another nonprofit, the Innovation Collaborative, based in Washington D.C. Ultimately, and could possibly influence public education policy and spending in the future.

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