Art Of Science Learning, Phase 2 Update

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November 18th, 2015

The Art of Science Learning (AOSL) is a National Science Foundation-funded initiative exploring innovation at the intersection of art, science and learning by using the arts to spark creativity in STEM education, and foster the development of an innovative 21st century STEM workforce.  Our current project, funded by NSF grant DRL-1224111 (“Integrating Informal STEM and Arts-Based Learning to Foster Innovation”), has developed a new curriculum using the arts to teach innovation processes to adolescent and adult learners. The curriculum was implemented over the course of a year at arts-based Incubators for STEM Innovation, during which we studied the impact of arts-based learning on creative thinking skills, collaborative behaviors, and innovation outcomes.

Curriculum And Incubators

The AOSL curriculum was developed in collaboration with some of the world’s leading experts in arts-based learning and innovation, and uses the arts to teach skills and practice steps common to most innovation processes. The AOSL curriculum is integrated with tools and best practices drawn from the Product Development Management Association Body of Knowledge, and Lean Start-Up methodologies.  In partnership with San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and EcoTarium in Worcester, we established Incubators for Innovation to serve as test sites for the new curriculum. 

Between October 2013 and January 2015, the incubators brought together 305 STEM professionals, formal and informal educators, artists, business leaders, researchers, policymakers and students to create and develop innovations in response to STEM-based civic challenges. Three examples of civic challenges are water resources in San Diego, urban nutrition in Chicago, and transportation alternatives in Worcester.  Art of Science Learning faculty led more than 60 workshops, using the arts to help incubator participants (known as Art of Science Learning Fellows) learn and practice new ways to explore challenges, identify problems and opportunities; generate, transform and communicate creative ideas; collaborate on cross disciplinary innovation teams; and co-create solutions with external partners.  We used “Metaphorming” (a collaborative symbolic modeling process created by Dr. Todd Siler, our ArtScientist in Residence) to give Fellows the opportunity to embody, enrich, and communicate their aspirations as they launched their innovation journeys, and to envision next steps at the completion of the program. Open-ended jazz improvisation techniques helped Fellows learn new observational skills and practice “suspending disbelief.” The Fellows used visual, and spoken word techniques drawn from the Surrealist movement to stimulate the flow of intuitive insights in their ideation, and Fellows used clay sculpture as a medium for modeling their ideas and assessing how they “stood up.”

After several months of work, the Fellows chose problems and solutions, and then formed themselves into 28 cross-disciplinary Art of Science Learning innovation teams. As the teams developed their concepts into innovations, we supported them with ongoing innovation training. Teams spent time with string quartets to observe successful collaborative behaviors in multi-leader environments, practiced user-centric iterative design thinking in community workshops, and worked with a theater-based technique called Rehearsing Ideas to accelerate their prototyping cycles. We also provided mentors, access to knowledge resources and community partners, and provided modest budgets for teams to continue their work.

Innovation Outcomes

Within twelve months, 22 teams (79% of the original cohort) had successfully developed and gone to market with working prototypes or “MVP’s” (Minimally Viable Products). An external panel of experts in STEM learning, innovation, and the various challenge domains recognized these innovations as demonstrating novelty, potential for implementation, and capacity to add value.  Nine months after the incubators closed, 8 teams were still working to advance their innovations. The following tables show the 22 products, process and services, ISE experiences, and K-12 STEM curricula prototyped at each of the three test sites.

Products Prototyped at Test Sites for Art of Science Learning
San Diego, CA Chicago, IL Worcester, MA
A portable, solar-powered backpack that extracts from the air by manipulating the dew point.
A virtual network connecting food insecure communities with producers and distributors.
A big-data tool to help city planners quantify and predict pedestrian and bicyclist behavior.
Trash to Paradise 
A low-cost treatment plant using repurposed trash and artificial wetlands to transform wastewater into agricultural water.
Seed Saddle 
An in-home urban growing system, designed to straddle windowsills using a “wicking” mechanism for passive watering.
Smart Healthcare Transit 
An app linking medical schedulers, public transport providers and patients to optimize scheduling and improve access.
En Plein Aire 
An app with native landscape images and resources, promoting reduced water usage by inspiring and educating homeowners.
A multi-modal demand-driven transport network using real-time data to determine routes, hub locations and schedules.
Solar powered soil moisture sensors to efficiently meet the needs of native gardens.


Processes & Services Prototyped at Test Sites for Art of Science Learning
San Diego, CA Chicago, IL Worcester, MA
  Crunch Time: Teen Cuisine 
A healthy cooking web show featuring short videos create and produced by teens, supported by Chicago’s video production community.
Tasks for Transit 
A sharing economy system converting volunteer hours into bus passes for those in need.
  Hacking Hunger: Feeding Our City 
A festival generating DIY/DIWO grassroots solutions to food insecurity.
Secret City Interactive 
An augmented reality/social media service to encourage neighborhood discovery through walking.


ISE Experiences & STEM Curricula Prototyped at Test Sites for Art of Science Learning
San Diego, CA Chicago, IL Worcester, MA
Sculptural Dew Collectors 
Biologically-inspired structures that harvest atmospheric water and support learning activities exploring water’s microphysics.
A healthy eating pop-up cart, serving as a stage for multi-sensory performance providing nutritional knowledge to youth.
STEM Unplugged 
An NGSS-aligned middle school curriculum exploring the impact of multi-tasking on transportation safety.
Aqua Wiser 
A mobile innovation center/model house and garden featuring interactive educational experiences and fostering community innovation.
Growing Innovations 
An NGSS-aligned middle school curriculum teaching innovative plant growing methods.
Wires Over the World 
An NGSS-aligned high school MOOC coupled with an engineering/design competition for urban aerial transportation systems.
Epic Water Game 
An educational game that takes players inside the California ecosystem to explore the connection between water and their own lives.
DIY EcoLab 
“STEAM in a box” art/science activity kits that blend observation, inquiry and creative expression
Simulation-based community learning for participants who collaboratively develop water neutral architecture, engineering and construction projects.



This project created an important opportunity to learn more about the relationship between the arts, STEM learning and innovation. Studies over the past decade have documented the central role of creativity, collaboration and communication skills to the development of an innovative STEM workforce.  Educators and employers have started to “connect the dots,” as evidenced by the development of a substantial body of “STEAM” practice, and the use of arts-based learning by roughly 80% of America’s Fortune 500 companies to strengthen employee creativity, collaboration and innovation skills.  But research into the impact of arts-based learning on STEM education and innovation processes remains limited, leading the team of 90 national researchers who participated in our Phase 1 conferences (funded by NSF grant DRL 0943769, â€śArts-Based Learning in Informal Science Education”) to conclude that “there is the need for a series of more sophisticated and developed quantitative studies than have been conducted to date” (Storksdieck, 2011).

Our project has addressed the need for more research by comparing the impacts and outcomes of arts-based innovation training with more traditional innovation training that does not incorporate the arts. Working with Audience Viewpoints Consulting, we designed experimental studies that compared treatment and control groups to test the hypothesis that integrating the arts into STEM-related innovation training would result in enhanced creative thinking skills, and more robust innovation processes and outcomes.  Beginning with a cohort of 65 high school students from Worcester, and 69 early career STEM professionals from San Diego, these research participants were given an arts/science experience, and a creativity process pre-survey before being assigned to either a control or treatment group. At each test site, participants completed creativity skills tests at the beginning and end of the five-week study period. In addition, observers gathered data on the collaborative interactions of teams, and an expert panel of judges scored the innovation outputs that developed during the study.  At the end of the study period, participants completed post-tests to assess any differences that might have transpired due to their experiences.

To date, the study results show that the arts-based innovation training had a positive impact on the individual creativity skills of high school students than the traditional innovation training.  Furthermore the expert panel found that high school teams who had arts-based training created innovations that demonstrated greater insight into the challenge, stronger problem solving strategies, and resulted in greater impacts than the innovations created by teams using the traditional innovation training.  On the other hand, adults teams showed creative thinking skills and innovation outputs to a lesser degree than teens. Arts-based training had a stronger positive impact on the collaborative behaviors of adults—including sharing leadership, mutual respect, empathic listening and trust in moving toward a solution—than the traditional innovation training.  The report on all the research findings will be published later this year. 

Next Steps

Next year, the project will tour Innovation at the Intersection, the Art of Science Learning exhibition we’ve developed in partnership with the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, where it will open on January 16. The exhibition aims to give visitors opportunities to use arts-based techniques to innovate solutions to STEM problems while exploring the 22 unique innovations developed by the incubator teams.  In each city the exhibition will be accompanied by symposia to share the project’s research and evaluation findings. Additional arts-based innovation workshops will give professional and community audiences opportunities to experience the AOSL curriculum while allowing us to continue refining both the curriculum and the creativity skills instrument we developed to measure impact.  Finally, we’re developing plans for Art of Science Learning’s Phase 3, which will focus on building scalable arts-based innovation tools and collaborative digital learning resources; implementing them in “real world” STEM innovation processes in a diverse set of partner organizations; and furthering our investigation into the nature of, and mechanisms behind the impacts of arts-based learning.