Why Integrate Science, Literacy, and the Arts?: A Q & A with science educators Dr. Josh Smith and Sharon Cates

Dr. Ashley Perkins interviews science education educators Josh Smith and Sharon Cates, founders of Phenomenon Science Education, to discuss their collaboration on Artful Reading Science.

Written By aperkins

On May 15, 2024

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What is Artful Reading Science (AR: SCI)?

AR:SCI weaves together literacy, science, and the arts to support students as they discover and build knowledge about the world. It fosters intellectual curiosity and fluency, using themes and practices to connect with science and language.

Students want to explore, examine, and learn more about the world around them. With AR: SCI, science is brought to life through engaging activities, turning every child into a curious investigator while strengthening their reading literacy skills.

Meet the Science Collaborators:

Josh Smith traces his interest in science to a dinosaur book he received as a birthday gift when he was six. Growing up in central Massachusetts, it was partly the red rocks poking out from the roadsides there that nudged him toward geology. To try and better understand those red rocks, he went to college in Amherst, Massachusetts, where they are plentiful. Josh spent time as a college professor before ending up in the assessment industry, where he discovered the world of science content standards and set him on a long path that eventually led him to K-12 science classroom materials.

Sharon Cates has worn many hats: student, scientist, classroom teacher, state science coordinator, and now co-founder of Phenomenon Science Education. After Idaho adopted a framework for K-12 Science Education based standards, she traveled to conferences and PD opportunities to figure out what that meant and implement three-dimensional standards in her classroom. She has been helping other teachers transition to student-centered, phenomenon-focused, three-dimensional, standards-based science teaching and learning ever since.

Here’s What They Have to Say

Q1: What is a phenomenon?

A phenomenon is a real-world example of the science topic that a teacher is teaching. It is something that students can observe and then directly address using the tools of science.

Q2: Why should phenomena be included in science lessons?

Scientists study phenomena. Students of science should too. If carefully presented and used as the focus of an activity or lesson, a phenomenon can increase student interest in the activity and engagement with the topic. The phenomenon can bring abstract science into a student’s world.

Q3: Why should the arts be included in science lessons?

There is a lot of interplay between art and science. A major component of science is communication – to yourself, among the members of your team, and to people outside of your team. Art often plays into this communication. There is the very obvious “how do I best visualize these data in order to get my point across” that plays into everything from brief discussions among team members to final publication of results. Then there is the perhaps less obvious “figuring stuff out” aspect of science. It’s not all number crunching. A huge amount of it involves sketching, diagrams, maps, and the like. My notebooks all have at least as many sketches and diagrams in them as they do rough tables of field data. All of this involves an interplay of art.

Art and science are both creative endeavors. Just like an artist has to creatively use tools and skills to bring their ideas into existence, a scientist has to creatively use the tools and skills of science to figure things out. In good science education, students engage in many of these same tasks, from figuring things out for themselves to communicating those figurings to others. Art skills help us do these things as scientists; they also help students of science do them. Incorporating art into science activities is as important as incorporating writing.

Q4: How did you learn about the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning (CTL)?

Chance brought Phenomenon Science Education and CTL together. We had neighboring exhibit spaces during an educational conference, and we struck up a conversation.

Q5: Why is a partnership between Phenomenon Science Education and CTL’s Artful Reading important to student learning?

Cross-curricular and intersectional collaborations result in more rich and creative solutions to any problem, but elementary education is an environment with so many possibilities. This partnership can open avenues for student growth within the constraints of educational systems.

Q6: Why is it important to the teaching of science?

Public school teachers in the primary and elementary grades face competing and sometimes contradictory priorities. These teachers do not have a lot of time to teach science and they do not always have administrative support to focus on science. This partnership allows us to integrate high quality science activities into the Artful Reading model – modules that already weave together arts and literacy to help students build knowledge about the world through the development of vocabulary and reading skills. We hope to provide teachers with a resource that doesn’t force them to choose between a series of excellent literary lessons or a series of phenomenon-based, standards-aligned science activities, but instead provides both in a single coherent package.