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  • Words by Stacey Bowers / Photography by Alex Kent

Creative Chemistry: Sylvan Hills Teachers Mix Science with Art

Under a colorful schoolroom ceiling, with a hand-painted periodic table of elements radiating rainbow overhead, close to three dozen high school students hover in groups around laboratory stations. Mr. Johnson’s chemistry class at Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood, Ark., normally isn’t this crowded. Today, Ms. Brannen’s art students have joined the science students for a lesson on how art and chemistry collide.

“Art interacts with all subject matter,” Brannen says. “For me, science is the most fun, with hands-on learning labs. However, we use many subjects, such as English, history and math.”

For the past two years, Brannen has participated in Thea Foundation’s Arts Reconstruction program, which provides advanced training and materials to visual arts teachers across central Arkansas. Thea Foundation, an Arkansas-based nonprofit that advocates the importance of arts education and helps fund creative materials for classrooms across the state, created its Arts Reconstruction program in 2014 as a way to institute arts programs in schools where they were lacking and augment existing arts programs that needed a boost.

The success of weaving the arts into other core subjects, like Brannen and Johnson’s approach, is backed by research. A 2013 study by the University of Mississippi found that arts integration across subjects increased test scores and “significantly reduced” the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students. Teaching the arts for arts’ sake is arguably equally important. The National Endowment for the Arts found that young people who are very active in the arts are four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, arts programs are mandatory in countries that rank among the highest for math and science test scores. Yet arts programs, like visual arts, music and theater, are frequently on the chopping block when school districts trim budgets.

In 2017, Brannen and teachers from five other schools took summer courses in metalworking and hand-built pottery, at the end of which Thea Foundation provided their schools the materials—clay, slab rollers, metal, metalworking tools, chemical compounds, and more—so they could teach those skills within their classrooms.

“Thea has given us resources for crafts that I never thought would be possible,” Brannen says. “Thea has made real world crafts possible for my students. With these crafts projects, students have used problem-solving skills to create unique pieces with the tools they are given. They have also learned how to use specialized equipment to measure, cut, saw and sew their pieces. By engaging in these processes, students can make connections with products they use every day, such as books, paper, coffee mugs, jewelry, etc. Students recognize these items and are able to say, ‘I can make that!’ Students are also able to give their crafts as gifts or sell them at festivals.”

When Brannen had the idea to teach her students to make etched metal keychains, she saw an opportunity to show them a greater appreciation for the science that goes hand-in-hand with this art form, and chemistry teacher Mr. Johnson loved the idea of showing his students how the chemistry they were learning could be applied in real life.

When the teachers combined their classrooms, the whole school buzzed with excitement. Both the journalism and yearbook classes sent photographers to capture the occasion. Art students mingled with science students at each laboratory station, watching their designs imprint on metal within a chemical bath. Ms. Brannen stood on one of the desks to project over the crowd, telling her students which steps to take next. Then, Mr. Johnson explained why little streams of bubbles trickled up from the submerged metal, and how those little bubbles indicated an extremely complex chemical reaction was taking place. Every student seemed to be enthralled.

“I absolutely believe that art strengthens student learning in other subject areas and helps to build their confidence,” Brannen says. “I always tell my students that no one is bad at art; everyone just has a different style or appreciation for art.”

To learn more about Thea Foundation's Arts Reconstruction program or to get your school involved, click here.

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