Arts Enviro-Challenger: Innovation in Action

20 Jun

Hannah Franke, Tacoma Arts Commission Intern

(The following article is courtesy of Arts Impact and the author Rachel Atkins.)

How can we be responsible and respectful of our environment by reducing waste?
How can artists turn trash into treasure?
How can we take action to protect the natural world?

This year, Tacoma students have been discovering the answers to these questions and many more through Arts EnviroChallenger (AEC), a unique new program and partnership between the City of Tacoma and Puget Sound Educational Service District’s Arts Impact.

EnviroChallenger is a free educational outreach program, provided by the City of Tacoma’s Public Works Environmental Services to Tacoma schools since 2000. Its elementary school curriculum reinforces the 5 R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Respect and Responsibility.

Through the 1% for Arts policy, the City of Tacoma dedicates 1% of construction costs of capital projects for the creation of public art. This year, Environmental Services chose to dedicate their 1% for Arts toward arts education by creating a visual arts EnviroChallenger program as a complement to the current EnviroChallenger program.

Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride connected Environmental Services with Arts Impact to develop the partnership and curriculum. The goal was to create a set of lessons that would teach both authentic science concepts and authentic visual arts concepts grounded in state learning standards. Through AEC, the City is now able to reach Tacoma students in grades K–5 with arts-based science lessons focusing on environmental stewardship, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. For example:

  • Enviro-flower Mandalas: How can trash become treasure?: 1st grade students observe plant parts and create flower collages in radial balance.
  • Enviro-bots: Inventions to Save the Planet: 3rd grade students invent and construct mixed-media robot sculptures, presenting technological solutions that support environmental sustainability.
  • Protecting Our Salmon: Superstars of the Northwest: 5th grade students study and create observational drawings of salmon. Students also make collages with a message combining salmon with symbols of positive or negative human impacts on their ecosystems.

This year, AEC is being piloted through 3-4 day residencies in eighteen K-5 classes in the Tacoma Public Schools. Next year, AEC will be offered throughout the district free of charge. Additional artists will be hired and the hope is to expand the integration component to include other arts disciplines.

Arts Impact and City of Tacoma partners reflect on the program so far:

How did the idea for Arts EnviroChallenger come about?
“It was a very unusual convergence of events that enabled this innovative collaboration.  In 2011, a public art opportunity became available at the City’s landfill.  Two recent construction projects at the landfill – a new Recovery and Transfer Center and a major remodeling of the Administration Building – resulted in 1% for art funds. The traditional option at this point would have been to work with an artist to create a piece of public art to be sited at the landfill. The problem is that such a piece would rarely be seen by the public. That’s when Assistant Division Manager for Environmental Services Mike Slevin proposed creating an arts-focused version of the EnviroChallenger program instead of a public art piece. He really wanted to find a way to increase access to arts education in the schools and strengthen Environmental Services’ messages about sustainability. The City of Tacoma’s Arts Program had been looking for ways to directly bring the arts into Tacoma’s public schools, so this was a great match.” -Amy McBride, Arts Administrator, Naomi Strom-Avila, Cultural Arts Specialist & Lorna Sutton, Community Relations Officer, City of Tacoma

“Amy McBride contacted me about developing a partnership that would integrate art and science education. She wanted to ensure that the arts education component would be integrating authentic arts concepts. Arts Impact was thrilled with this unique opportunity to develop a partnership with the City of Tacoma.” -Sibyl Barnum, Director of Arts Education, Arts Impact, Puget Sound Educational Service District

What makes Arts EnviroChallenger so special?
“For me, this program has intensified my awareness of the magnitude of the challenges we face: in becoming more environmentally responsible as a community, nation and planet. We have a whole economy dependent on how goods are packaged. Educating our youth to be aware of this and make different choices about what they buy or use represents a huge step towards a greener world.” -Meredith Essex, Artist Mentor, Arts Impact

 “This is an exciting way to communicate about the environment to students that we may not reach through the original EnviroChallenger program. In the Environmental Services utilities — Solid Waste, Surface Water and Wastewater management — we need the community to be our partners in protecting the environment. We can’t be successful without them.” – Lorna Sutton, Community Relations Officer, City of Tacoma

“Arts EnviroChallenger is not just about giving children exposure to the arts as an experience. The arts are proven to be a vital key to helping our youth develop into creative, innovative and collaborative adults, more prepared to navigate and succeed in the rigors of our 21st century society. This long-term vision is what really excites us about this program.” -Naomi Strom-Avila, Cultural Arts Specialist, City of Tacoma

“I’m not sure if there are any other partnerships quite like this in the state–or anywhere else for that matter.” -Sibyl Barnum

How was the curriculum developed? 
“We chose to work with Art Impact because of their proven ability to develop quality curriculum that ties to state standards, is authentic, and able to be evaluated.  This was essential and such a relief that we could rely on an organization who already has that part figured out.  The rest was working with the EnviroChallenger staff, elementary school teachers, and principals to be sure that we developed a model and curriculum that would be useful and effective.”  -Amy McBride

“Arts Impact has developed sequential arts-infused infused lessons in reading, writing, and math. We have developed a few stand-alone arts and science infused lessons. This project has provided us the opportunity to develop sequential K-5 arts-infused science lessons. Additionally the development of these lessons comes at time that allows for alignment with the new national Next Generation Science standards, so the lessons are completely up to date.” -Sibyl Barnum

“The process has really been a meld of gathering and processing ideas within Arts Impact’s elementary teacher focus group (teachers who have participated in both Arts Impact and EnviroChallenger); studying the existent EnviroChallenger model; talking with and observing its educators in the classroom (John Inch and Jacqueline Fuller); researching the science standards with a particular focus on systems and living things; and working through ideas via a review process with the PSESD’s resident science expert Cheryl Lydon. I also spent a lot of time looking at art made out of re-purposed materials created by prominent contemporary artists–much of that art proved a catalyst for developing projects. I dreamed up and played with ideas that reflected the merge of the science standards, making art out of recycled stuff that I found engaging, and the EnviroChallenger message of the 5 R’s.” -Meredith Essex

How has incorporating visual art impacted the original EnviroChallenger program?
“Because it is so new, we won’t fully know the impact on the EnviroChallenger program until we’ve had a chance to follow-up with the pilot classes. But we fully expect that it will expose more people to the EnviroChallenger program, perhaps resulting in more bookings for the already busy EnviroChallenger educators. We also expect it will also help develop better environmental stewards. The K-5 students who first learn about recycling, for example, in the arts-based program will have the messages reinforced when they encounter the science-based lessons later, and vice-versa.” -Naomi Strom-Avila and Lorna Sutton

How have teachers and students responded to Arts EnviroChallenger? 
“We have already seen a spike in demand for the program for the 2012-13 school year. The teachers involved in the pilot program have willingly participated in focus sessions and meetings to help prepare for the new program. Most of the teachers involved have had EnviroChallenger programming in their classrooms, so they are familiar with some of the curriculum and messaging of the program. But they are excited to see how students respond to, absorb, and use information in new ways when the lessons are brought to life using art.”-Amy McBride

 “Students in general are very concerned about our environment and want to focus their energies on saving our planet. They also love the idea of transforming ordinary unwanted “trash” materials into art. Once we start utilizing materials in this way, it changes the way we think about and look at ordinary stuff. I am constantly finding myself getting excited about some odd textural packing material, the shape or color of a cap that comes off a bottle, or a brightly colored envelope in the mail, because I know we can make something wonderful out of it. Students feel the same way. Re-using becomes a frame of mind that encompasses everything. The only non-repurposed art materials used in the residencies are adhesives: all the rest are materials no longer wanted, needed, or basically considered “trash.” For many 4th graders, for instance, this program has been students’ first contact with the important concept of ecosystem, so lots of new information as well as creative thinking is being introduced. Teachers have been supportive and forthright with ideas to improve the pacing and presentation of information in the residencies, so the program has a true spirit of collaboration at the core of its design (which makes for a great pilot!).” -Meredith Essex

“The students in the classrooms I have observed have been very eager to participate in the conversation. Meredith asked thoughtful questions of the students, eliciting responses that were relevant and meaningful to each child in how they could be better stewards of the environment. Students pulled from math knowledge when talking about symmetry; they pulled from their former EnviroChallenger lessons when discussing the 5 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Respect, Responsibility), and they pulled from previous curriculum when discussing the different parts of an insect. The children were very eager to share their drawings with their classmates through classroom presentations as well as more informal “art walks” where they took a tour of their classmates’ drawings throughout the classroom. This program has definitely succeeded in developing an eagerness to learn.” -Naomi Strom-Avila

“At Grant Elementary, Delonna Halliday’s 4th grade class immediately approached their principal after their Enviro-Superheros: Taking Action unit, asking to raise money for clean water in Africa.  Several months later, they raised $150 to purchase bio-sand water filters to send to high need areas in Eastern Africa.  This dramatic call to action is a delightful consequence I hadn’t foreseen, so powerful!”  -Amy McBride

What are your hopes for the future of Arts EnviroChallenger?
“I hope the program can grow, and that we can identify and train a group of teaching artists to expand the program and carry the work forward effectively. I think that we are likely to encounter a big demand for these residencies because they are so strategically standards aligned, address current environmental sustainability issues, and they provide a great creative learning opportunity for students within school climates which often do not provide many art-making opportunities.” -Meredith Essex

“The possibilities for expanding the project to incorporate other arts disciplines and reach up into middle and high school are quite exciting.” -Sibyl Barnum

“We see Arts EnviroChallenger as an on-going arts education program. While we are piloting it at this time, it is something we want to see continue to grow. The more schools and students we can reach through the program, the more exposure our children will have to the arts, in all its varied forms. While the program currently focuses on the visual arts, there is room for expansion into the performing arts as well. The sky is the limit with this program. We fully expect that the program will enhance environmental stewardship in Tacoma. Our children really are key to protecting the environment in the future.” -Naomi Strom-Avila


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