USA’s NSF combines AAW and Polar Educators to make STEAM | Polarjournal
An artist’s conception? (Photo: US Antarctic Program)

Starting in the 1950s, and until 2020, as part of its mission of keeping America at the forefront of scientific discovery, the federally funded National Science Foundation has used a portion of its budget to send non-scientists to Antarctica. There, the painters, writers, photographers historians and others with a humanities bent accepted to the Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, observed the work of the scientists of the US Antarctic Program in the expectation that they would use what they learned to help Americans better understand Antarctica and America’s work there. 

Meanwhile, a second programme, Polar Educators, was set up to allow elementary and secondary-school teachers to travel to the Antarctic and Arctic with a similar goal in mind: to work with scientists and to pass on what they learned to their pupils. As of this month, the two programmes have been combined into a multi-million-dollar effort the NSF hopes will bring the message of polar appreciation to a wider audience. 

By now, most will be familiar with the term “Stem” as an educational concept. Short for “science, technology, engineering and maths”, it is most often used when discussing how and why these subjects should play a more prominent role in young people’s education. Adding an “a” (for “art”) is, according to the NSF, a recognition that the way science is communicated is as important as the message itself.

“To this end, the integration of art in Stem connects to a broader swath of learners, by sparking curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, as well as promoting academic engagement and greater understanding,” Dr James L Moore III, an NSF administrator, said.

Oregon State University will receive $4 million (€3.9 million) to run the programme for the NSF. It will still be aimed teachers, artists and writers, and have the same goal of putting them in the midst of polar scientists at work through research-station residencies and by organising virtual and in-person professional development experiences.

“What we’re offering in this programme is a real integration across the arts, humanities, education and science,” said Julie Risien, the lead principal investigator of the Polar STEAM programme, said. “We want to prepare participants for their field experience, ensure they are able to produce something valuable from that experience, provide mentorship on their return and ensure that they have the opportunity to share their work broadly.”

Polar STEAM will expand the reach of the Polar Educators programme for informal and K-12 science education by also including faculty from community colleges and institutions of higher education that serve minority populations, and by adding a virtual track so that will give educators who cannot travel to the polar regions the chance to take part.

Oregon State University was chosen for the strength of its polar research activities, which include the NSF-funded Center for Oldest Ice Exploration. Project leaders also highlighted its history of artist residencies, it expertise in formal and informal Stem learning and an award-winning teacher-development programme known for its work with underserved communities.

In addition, the university is building a $70 million, 4,500sq m arts complex that will integrate the arts, humanities, science and education. It will use the complex to host a major national exhibition featuring polar arts, history and science in 2025 as part of the Polar STEAM programme.

One of the goals of combining the two existing programmes is to provide support and community for participants after they return from field experiences so they have opportunities to reflect, share and learn from one another, according to Peter Betjemann, a university director. “At the end of five years,” he said, “we hope to have built intentional relationships between educators, scientists and artists and writers. And we hope to maintain those relationships beyond the participants’ field experiences.” The goal then, is for art to, if not imitate science, then at least to help popularise it.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: Major Steve Mortensen, McChord AFB / National Science Foundation

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