Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters
Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 11/17/2016

Contributed: Local artist Ed Martinez works with local school children on 'Forage Species' sculptures, art-based team projects that teach students about the Monterey Bay ecosystem.

Contributed: Local artist Ed Martinez works with local school children on 'Forage Species' sculptures, art-based team projects that teach students about the Monterey Bay ecosystem.

What would happen if our nation’s schools embraced the teaching of art to enhance student understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects? According to local artist and entrepreneur Ed Martinez, integrating hands-on art projects into the widely accepted STEM curriculum would result in nothing short of an educational paradigm shift.

“Decades ago art was isolated from the academic environment. That made it easy to eliminate the arts from the curriculum, and that’s what we have now,” Martinez says.

“Many kids are lost along the way because their curiosity is not stimulated by book learning alone. When hands-on art projects are added to the STEM curriculum, students begin to recognize and tap their own genius,” he adds.

Support for integrating the arts back into the widely embraced STEM curriculum is growing nationwide in a movement known as “STEM to STEAM.” In 2011, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, described STEAM as a pathway to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness, and “an innovation strategy for America,” pointing to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as an example.

Contributed One of the STEAM projects.

Contributed One of the STEAM projects.

A wide spectrum of grants from foundations and businesses is available to fund STEAM projects, in recognition of the need for critical thinking and innovation in today’s world. Trouble is, finding and applying for all these grants is difficult, leaving lots of funding unclaimed. Martinez is working to change this.

A steel sculptor, Martinez began recognizing the power of art to enhance science education when he was commissioned by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2011 to create a large scale artwork to be built by and for the community.

Martinez formerly worked for Greenpeace International. He wanted his sculpture to communicate how climate-related, changing ocean conditions impact the smallest, yet most important creatures in the sea: the “forage” or feeder species that the ocean web of life depends on. The result was a large-scale hanging piece, entitled “Forage Species” that was constructed by the hands of 400-plus museum members and guests of all ages.

“Forage Species,” which now hangs in the lobby of Cruzio in downtown Santa Cruz, drew crowds to the museum. It also drew the attention of local teachers, who suggested to Martinez that he adapt his artistic process to teach local school children about the Monterey Bay ecosystem through an art project.

With the support of the museum, he engaged 120 children from all different socioeconomic levels in three different school districts to work on more “Forage Species” sculptures together. Student enthusiasm for learning was re-ignited, Martinez says.

Now, Martinez is donning his entrepreneur’s hat to make STEAM teaching, art, and funding resources easily available to teachers and communities throughout the nation via a website to be named “SMart to go.”

This platform would provide a national database of participating artists, a catalog of funding institutions, and templates for structuring effective projects and developing successful grant proposals. Finally, the platform would serve as a community, where teachers and parents could share ideas, discuss best practices, and post examples of project successes.

The website would provide all these STEAM resources in one place, enabling teachers and/or communities to easily add proven art-based projects into existing curricula. Martinez envisions that no public funding would be required, since the platform would eventually become a social corporation.

Martinez says he is working on a crowdfunding campaign to raise tax-deductible seed money for SMart to go. Learn more about this platform on his Facebook page “Art4schools” or email him at Elm3@got.net.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who can be contacted through her website at www.betsyherbert.com. She serves on the board of Sempervirens Fund and on the board of Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council.