Water, Art and STEAM: Connecting the Dots

By Will Parish|January 28, 2014

With everything that cycles through my mind day after day, water has been cropping up at increasingly frequent intervals. More specifically, the dearth of rainfall here in the Bay Area as California enters its third consecutive dry winter. San Francisco, which started recording rainfall 164 years ago, has had only 5.59 inches of rain since January 2013, far below the city’s record-low 9 inches in 1917, according to National Weather Service data. The long-range forecast from the Climate Prediction Center is also not promising: below-average rain and snow for all of central and Southern California through March. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 94.25% of the state is enduring some level of drought conditions – from severe to extreme – and that most of the prime agriculture area of the Central Valley is in extreme drought – which as USA Today reported “could bring catastrophic losses to California agriculture, as water allotments are slashed by state agencies”.

All of this became even more tangible and contemporaneous as I viewed the David Hockney exhibit at the de Young museum here in SF (over 300 works in 18,000 square feet of gallery space – the largest exhibition in the history of the museum).

As I took in the incredible scope of the artist’s visual creations, the notion of landscapes over time became this sort of matrix connecting my ideas, experiences, and endeavors.

A striking example of this relates to a place close to home where I frequently take hikes year-round in Sonoma County. Much of this space has been preserved via the work of the LandPaths and Sonoma Land Trust. Working with private landowners, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and other public agencies, nonprofit partners, and foundations have protected more than 47,000 acres of beautiful, productive and environmentally significant land in and around Sonoma County since 1976.

In experiencing this area over time, I am struck by the changes I see happening – the creeks and ponds are dry, I spot fewer signs of wildlife, the plant life is diminished – the verdant green of Northern California winter is nowhere in sight.

Winter here normally looks like this:

This is what’s happening now:

Experiencing this change in my own personal way, I can’t help but think of it as but one facet of a larger whole in which many people across many sectors are experiencing changes in the environment in a variety of separate, yet connected, ways. Reflecting on this really brought home why Ten Strands exists, and the underlying importance of including environment-based education in the K-12 framework.

My journey to learning about and caring for our environment has been one fueled by passion and curiosity, but rapidly changing conditions may not leave future generations that luxury – it’s looking like it is a necessity.

Which brings me to STEAM. That’s right, it’s STEM with an added component. There is a rising tide pushing for inclusion of Art (and design) into the STEM movement. STEAM is a movement championed by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with the objectives of transforming research policy to place Art and Design at the center of STEM and encouraging integration of Art and Design in K–20 education. Karen Cowe will be representing Ten Strands at the 4th Annual STEAM Colloquium in San Ramon on February 7th.

This concept is becoming increasingly more widely adopted by institutions, corporations and individuals. Not to mention politicians. Governor Deval Patrick made Massachusetts the first state in the country to call for the formation of a creativity index aimed at rating public schools statewide based on their ability to teach, encourage and foster creativity in students. Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, impressed with STEAM-based schools in her home state, introduced the topic in the House Science, Space & Technology Committee last February. The responses from Richard Templeton (Texas Instruments President & CEO), Charles Vest (current National Academy of Engineering President and former MIT President), and Shirley Ann Jackson (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) were unanimously supportive of STEAM, with Vest stating that he “could not imagine MIT without its visual and performing arts component… it’s very much a part, in my opinion, of what has to happen at both K-12 and in undergraduate and even graduate education”.

The changes in our environment and how we respond to those changes requires thinking and creativity that cuts across concepts and modalities. As my own recent personal reflections and experiences have reminded me, realizing the connections between disciplines, subjects, and forms of expression reinforces the importance of each as part of the whole.

That’s both a powerful metaphor and a reality.

Will Parish
This article was written by Will Parish

Will Parish is a credentialed public high school science educator with a 30-year record of innovative accomplishments in the environmental and educational fields. He taught Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco, and now serves on the board. He served on the California State Board of Education’s Curriculum Commission and then founded Ten Strands as a nonprofit organization to support California’s efforts to bring environmental literacy to all K–12 students in the state.