News | Alley Theatre offers way to mix STEM lessons, arts methods

April 25, 2015

By Ericka Mellon | Houston Chronicle 

The fifth-graders at Emerson Elementary sat on the floor in a circle and awaited instructions from their guest teacher, Sarah Bassinger, from the Alley Theatre.

“Today, my friends, we’re going to the grasslands,” she told them on a recent morning. “Grab your ecologist jacket.”

The children slid their arms through their imaginary gear, then Bassigner led them through a lesson on the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, a key concept in fifth-grade science.

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The two-week, hour-long lessons offered by the Alley Theatre to public schools across the Houston area are part of a growing national trend to integrate the arts more into academics. In education lingo, the idea is called STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The term inserts the “A” into the better-known buzzword, STEM, which has gotten most of the attention and federal funding because of concerns that the United States has fallen behind in science- and math-related fields.

Critics question whether a focus on STEAM dilutes the science and math or whether schools may be spread too thin.

“It’s not anti-STEM. It’s STEM-plus,” said Babette Allina, an executive director at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mary Sutton, who became the Alley Theatre’s director of education two years ago, adapted her “Staging STEM” program from her work in California. Teaming with local teachers, she and her staff craft the lessons to ensure they cover the concepts in the Texas curriculum standards. They give students written pre- and post-tests to measure their results.

“There’s just a whole list of learners who don’t learn by reading in a book or doing rote memory exercises,” said Sutton.

The Houston Ballet also sends teachers into schools with its “Dance To Learn” program, helping explain magnetism or Newton’s laws of motion, for example, said Jennifer Sommers, the outreach coordinator.

The principal of Emerson Elementary, Alexander Rodriguez, said he learned about the Alley Theatre program from representatives at a local farmer’s market. He liked the idea of exposing his mostly low-income students to theater professionals. He thought the children, many of them still learning English, could benefit from instruction that let them move and express themselves beyond desks and pencils.

“What we have learned is, the more we give them opportunities to be creative, they can solve problems better,” he said.

Rodriguez also was aware that Emerson’s passing rate on the state science exam had dropped to 68 percent in 2014, down from 85 percent the year before. He said he hired a more experienced science specialist this school year, and fifth-graders go to the lab twice a week. Emerson earned a grade of C+ in the latest Children at Risk rankings, based largely on high-level test scores in reading and math.

Zulema Esparza, an Emerson fifth-grade teacher, said she started off skeptical of the Alley Theatre lessons — which finished a few days before students had to take the state science exam.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s not enough science content,’ ” Esparza said mid-way through the two-week stint. “But as the days are progressing, there’s more and more.” She saw her students laughing, shouting out answers to Bassinger and volunteering to participate in scenes.

“They love it,” Esparza said. “The second day, they were already hugging her.” At Spring ISD’s Winship Elementary, Principal Lauren Thompson said she took a “leap of faith” to devote two weeks of science classes to the Alley Theatre program this year. To her relief, her students fared well on an internal science test, with 83 percent passing, a few points above the district average.

“Sometimes when students are having fun, they don’t know they’re learning,” said Thompson, whose school earned a C grade from Children at Risk.

In Klein ISD, district officials are exposing students to STEAM-related careers such as engineering and architecture through a traveling truck filled with activities. The “STEAM Express” was funded by $400,000 in donations.

On a recent morning, Ehrhardt Elementary third-grader Aidan Jakobsohn headed straight for the computer program allowing him to design a roller-coaster. He clicked to create a loop, making it 397 feet tall, with the car going 207 miles per hour.

Too fast, the program said. The 8-year-old tried again, changing the measurements. Then again. “SUCCESS!” the screen flashed at last.