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STEAM Ambassadors Meld Art, Science for Community Children

By Brian Hiro

For two hours on a Saturday morning in mid-October, cars streamed on to a Cal State San Marcos campus that has been eerily quiet for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The cars were filled with parents, with schoolchildren, with teachers. One by one, they pulled into Craven Circle, stopped in front of stations that had been set up for the occasion and picked up brown paper bags that didn’t contain food but, in the words of one participant, might as well have been Happy Meals for the joy they delivered.

The bags were art kits packed with materials and projects to help kids, many of them from underserved schools, get the art fix that largely has vanished from their lives in this new world of remote education. During the two-hour period, about 500 kits were handed out to people from the community at no charge.

“The kids were so excited. The parents were so grateful,” said Christiane Wood, a CSUSM literacy education professor, who took part in the distribution. “And the teachers, there were several who told me, ‘You have no idea, learning in this virtual environment is so hard. This is such a wonderful thing you’re doing.’ ”

The art kit distribution served as the kickoff event for a new program at CSUSM called STEAM Ambassadors. STEAM is the common educational acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – sandwiched around the word “art,” and the term has gained currency in recent years as research accumulates on the importance of integrating art into the highly popular STEM disciplines.

The STEAM ambassadors are a group of seven students – five of them are pursuing their teaching credential in the School of Education, two are undergraduate arts and science students – who are working to implement STEAM curriculum in local K-12 schools under the direction of Lucy HG Solomon, a professor of art, media and design.

“Through this project, we are trying to encourage students to see themselves as both a scientist and an artist,” said Leah Amparan, who graduated from CSUSM in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and is now in the multiple subject credential cohort. “Being a STEAM ambassador is a great way to connect with other like-minded people and be able to share our knowledge and love for the arts and sciences with other students.”

The genesis of the STEAM initiative was last spring, when music professor Merryl Goldberg decided to let several of her students become arts ambassadors as part of an independent study assignment through her Art=Opportunity program. Embedded at the Vista Academy of Visual & Performing Arts, the students would report to the school one day a week and either assist teachers with their art classes or teach a lesson on their own.

When COVID-19 shut down the school in March, the arts ambassadors shifted online, creating a public Facebook group dedicated to sharing art for students and their families. Every week or two, they would post a new challenge topic and select an artist to showcase on the Art=Opportunity website.

Around the same time, in May, the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation out of San Francisco awarded Goldberg a $25,000 grant to expand the fledgling program and incorporate science into the curriculum. Thus did the arts ambassadors morph into STEAM ambassadors.

“There are a lot of folks who believe that the arts are fluff,” Goldberg said. “But the research clearly shows the importance of arts in terms of creating empathy, imaginative thinkers, people who work well with each other, people who can solve problems. The arts give students those skills, and we want parents to understand that this is a pathway, this is a career, this is a lifelong marker that’s going to help their kids.”

While the STEAM ambassadors were devising social media challenges last spring, Goldberg and Wood – who facilitates professional development for Art=Opportunity – began to brainstorm other ways they could help the local community amid the pandemic. They eventually partnered with the New Children’s Museum in San Diego on the art kit concept, borrowing lesson plans from the museum and enlisting the STEAM ambassadors to build the science component.

Solomon came on board in the fall as the faculty coordinator, and she oversaw the process of the students turning nascent thoughts into reality in a matter of weeks.

“They are this lightning storm of ideas,” Solomon said. “You can see how they cross-pollinate with one another when they’re trying to come up with ways to allow kids to access their own creativity and confidence in art and science.”

As an example, one of the projects in the art kit involves making a butterfly out of household materials. Grafting a science element on to that, the STEAM ambassadors came up with information and a series of activities about pollinators and habitats, including in the bag seeds of wildflowers and milkweed. And in a sign of how sustainability is foundational to CSUSM’s mission, the students even made a bookmark with instructions for how to craft an origami bat (which is also a pollinator) out of the paper bag itself.

“The students are so creative, imaginative, dedicated and invested in what they do,” Goldberg said. “For the ones who want to become teachers, I think they’re going to be the best teachers ever.”

The STEAM ambassadors are hoping to assemble and distribute a second art kit during the spring semester, and they’re also developing art and science curriculum materials that they can test out in local schools, either in person or virtually.

It’s just the sort of specialized instruction that Tarah Durham didn’t receive while she was growing up in Murrieta. The CSUSM teaching credential student says she wasn’t really exposed to the arts until high school, when she took a dance elective that greatly helped her to express some of the emotions she was feeling.

Now she’s a STEAM ambassador, imparting to young students knowledge and experiences that she wishes had been a part of her childhood.

“So many students are taught to shy away from STEAM, but we know that teaching it can help students understand themselves and others more,” Durham said. “It can help them find passions and make school more enjoyable.”

STEAM Ambassadors

These are the seven CSUSM students who are representing the university this school year as part of the STEAM Ambassadors program. 

Leah Amparan, School of Education teaching credential student
Amy Brunolli, School of Education teaching credential student
Tarah Durham, School of Education teaching credential student
Kodie Gerritsen, Art, Media and Design major
Nancy Meza, School of Education teaching credential student
Raelene Pellos, physics major
Gianina Provencio, School of Education teaching credential student

Media Contact

Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist

bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306