I imagine that I sat at a desk for most of my grade school education though I can’t say I recall much of those lessons.  I can however recall the times that we went outside or got to create something new. In fact I remember quite a few of our outdoor experiences and art projects.  Nature and art were always sure to grab my attention.

Scale model Lyncrest Elementary. Photo by Ben Pranger.
Scale model at Lyncrest Elementary. Photo by Ben Pranger.
With environmental awareness spreading, NWF’s Eco-Schools USA program has been rapidly gaining ground. This program which supports and recognizes schools integrating sustainability into the classroom continues to grow.  Many of the success stories coming out of New Jersey have a common theme – the arts, demonstrating how the arts and sustainability can elevate lessons in science and math and leave a lasting impression on students.

In today’s world of changing curriculum standards and pressure to perform on standardized tests, how can teachers manage to include anything beyond the basics?  The answer may be simpler then you think.  Eco-Schools are finding that art and sustainability are not on the periphery of science and academics; rather they are at the very center.  By teaching through the lens of creativity and environmental awareness, we elevate these lessons to become memorable experiences.

“Art is a shared experience that should be a part of every discipline.  It has the power to communicate on a visceral level” says artist Pat Brentano.

Weaving Art Into Instruction

Pat is one of five artists who presented their work at the NJ Eco-Schools professional learning series webinars.  Each webinar focused on an Eco-School pathway and featured discussions with statewide stakeholders in student learning and presentations from artists who use their craft to demonstrate sustainable practices.

Students witnessing plants growing from handmade paper. Photo by Michele Brody.
Students witnessing plants growing from handmade paper. Photo by Michele Brody.
One such presenter was artist Michele Brody, known for her living art installations.  She worked with students to create their own handmade paper from plant material which they used as a growing medium to sprout flax and wheat grass. The paper exhibited the seeds and roots allowing students to see the whole plant and witness its transformation.  Lessons in biology and germination literally came to life in front of their very eyes.

This doesn’t sound like a lesson they are likely to forget. By stepping outside of the usual routine and offering students a hands-on role in the learning process we create opportunities for active participation.  Lessons on sustainability give real world meaning to math and science applications while art creates a bridge across all learning styles for individualized learning.

Teacher Colin McClain from an Eco-School in Egg Harbor Township, NJ says “The environment is something that these kids can take ownership of.  It is their planet after all.  And Eco-School projects fit easily into core curriculum. From designing the outdoor classroom to calculating the carbon output per light bulb in the school we are constantly incorporating science, technology, engineering, art and math into this work.”

Sculpture and outdoor class at Lyncrest elementary. Photo by Ben Pranger.
Sculpture and outdoor class at Lyncrest elementary. Photo by Ben Pranger.
Students at Lyncrest Elementary in Fairlawn, NJ had the opportunity to work with artist Ben Pranger on a project that strengthened design and engineering skills and resulted in an outdoor learning space for classes to use.  Students drew preliminary sketches for an entrance gate to a nature preserve behind the school.  Select designs were turned into scale models which were ultimately used to build an elaborate entrance way, outdoor classroom structure, and large sculpture made entirely out of natural materials including logs, branches and twigs.  Pranger’s work reminds us that we can actively engage in art and sustainability and have a powerful effect on student learning.

Outdoor classroom at Dr. Joyanne D. Miller School in Egg Harbor Township. Photo courtesy Miller School.
Outdoor classroom at Dr. Joyanne D. Miller School in Egg Harbor Township. Photo courtesy Miller School.
You don’t need a visiting artist to get creative. Teacher Heather Joyce of Sewell, NJ combined technology and art to teach her students about conservation while engaging her students in innovative ways.  Using multi-media art the students created inspirational plays, videos and visual art displays to teach others about recycling.  The recycling message was embedded in the art itself, as the kids were challenged to use only recycled materials in their productions.

Functional art has its place in sustainability too. Teacher, Debra DeAngelis of Allamuchy hopes to add some green infrastructure to school grounds and is inviting her class to create rain barrels that double as works of art.  Students are in the process of drawing their designs now and hope to begin painting the rain barrels in the spring.

Opportunities to incorporate art, sustainability and STEM into valuable learning experiences are everywhere.  Give your child something to remember.

About the Author

Jessica_BrownJessica Brown is a Communications Consultant with National Wildlife Federations Eco-Schools USA program in New Jersey.  As a mother and a hiker, Jessica is an advocate for children spending more time in nature.  Jessica has over 10 years of experience in philanthropy and communications in the non-profit sector and most recently worked for The Nature Conservancy. 

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Published: April 9, 2014