Citizen Art and Science as Enablers of New Public School Excellence Initiatives

Coordinator: Molly Hankwitz, PhD


A growing concern among citizens are a set of environmental issues which threaten the livelihood of the planet. These issues range from climate change and its influence upon polar ice cap melting, to surface air temperature warming and fire hazard; to water conservation, the state of the oceans, the impact of landfill and plastics, and the effect of toxins upon human and animal food. The ”green” movement in Northern California, and indeed, across the USA has manifested in future planning strategies and programs of organizations from the US Green Building Council to major newspaper production, supermarkets, and public school curriculum initiatives.

Effective Special Programs

One area of citizens’ environmental concern which has grown rapidly has been the development of programs such as the greening of school campuses, citizen science projects to monitor environmental disasters, grassroots mapping projects and open science platforms. These initiatives have, in turn, influenced principals and teachers to produce quality elementary, middle and high school curriculum which crosses over between art and science involving studies in composting, rainwater catchment, botany, solar energy use and design, farming and environmental science through the making of paper and other useful materials, recycling food waste and trash, utilizing waste in sculpture and collage, or monitoring water and sun as part of a poetry and science program. In some cases, entire school buildings have been designed to produce interest among students in the green building functions of their own energy and water efficiency. Curriculum has left the school and moved into the neighborhood where engineering and architectural design are being taught through storefront workshops to young people.

Roadblocks and Inhibitors

This interdisciplinary learning, which does not remove the student from knowledge of art and science, but which places the student in direct contact with critical processes for learning, i.e. experimentation, trial and error, and documentation is a fertile arena for the consideration of ongoing curriculum development in the sciences, and the deployment of science into public education. It is not without stumbling blocks, however. For one, public funding for the arts and arts education is low. Secondly, science education is frequently geared toward expedient fulfillment of state curriculum standards and proficiency testing, rather than exploration or cross pollination of new ideas. Educators only have so much time to expand curriculum and still engage state requirements effectively while standardized testing precludes the positive effects of learning arising without quantifiable outcomes and tends to harness student power in the form of multiple choice, memorization, and wrote learning.

Moreover, impediments to career paths start young. Gender imbalances and lowered performance among minority schools may mean contexts where both art and science are considered less critical than are other basic skill sets, or the culture taught may not register adequately with different groups. This in turn may reinforce divisions in society that persist in the social stratification of the arts and sciences and in higher education. What is critical, however, for the implementation of art projects with which to learn science and science projects with which to do art is knowledge that addresses these social inequalities outright as the basis of design/art/science/engineering learning.

For instance, data on drinking water quality in neighborhoods or regions, suggests increased likelihood of health damage to minority populations. (Gross, 2012)This data can mean a great deal to those affected by it, providing it is known, understood and responded to. The central question for curriculum and initiative practitioners is: how to ensure all students engage with meaningful information, know how to use information and data, and are able to address, analyze, record, or sustain relationships to and solutions for its impact upon their communities? The question becomes, then, how are university-led initiatives for the arts and sciences to be meted out in public education and how does the culture of art and science knowledge ensure its community-based relevance for all students?


This paper examines three primary strands of interdisciplinary processes with respect to their integration into communities of learning, and recommends actions for their sustainability. Firstly, it examines how students best engage with contemporary social issues in the arts and sciences. Secondly, it suggests potentials for cross-cultural developments between art and science and possible partnerships within the educational spectrum which engage with the underserved. Thirdly, it encourages collaborations between art, design, engineering, scientists, science educators, and school systems primarily in the arena of the environmental sciences and futurology; where issues of sustainability, accurate analysis of contemporary science, environmental systems and their corollary in art can be most impactful and useful. It posits both mentoring and open educational platforms as a central condition of new knowledge production and effective interdisciplinarity in the arts and sciences.
Gross, Liz. Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: No Beba la Agua. Don’t Drink the Water in Environmental Health News, Environmental Health Sciences, 2011.