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Fourth grade students at West Orange Elementary warm up with ESCAPE teaching artist Dawn Dyson-Platero before an arts and sciences integrated dance lesson on weathering and erosion. Alex Ray / ESCAPE

UCI initiates NSF-funded joint project utilizing the arts to improve grade school science education

Through an innovative new program developed at UC Irvine, the arts and the sciences – which often occupy opposite ends of the grammar school curriculum – are being integrated to help young students better grasp the basics of Earth, life and physical sciences.

Irvine, Calif., Nov. 19, 2014 — Through an innovative new program developed at UC Irvine, the arts and the sciences – which often occupy opposite ends of the grammar school curriculum – are being integrated to help young students better grasp the basics of Earth, life and physical sciences.

With $6.4 million in National Science Foundation funding, UCI has established the Equitable Science Curriculum for Integrating Arts in Public Education project, which will address the challenges of learning and understanding science as faced by a growing population of elementary school students, many of whom are non-native English speakers.

The ESCAPE project is focused on researching how creative movement and visual arts may help children better master scientific concepts, reverse scientific misconceptions and reduce cognitive load through the educational techniques of embodied cognition. For example, children will use dance to mimic the tilt of the Earth’s axis in order to embody the cause of seasons, which is often falsely thought to be Earth’s distance from the sun.

As director of science education and media for UCI’s Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences, ESCAPE executive director and principal investigator Brad Hughes, Ph.D., seeks innovative approaches to enhancing K-12 education.

“In our highly technological world, it’s more important than ever that schoolchildren learn scientific concepts, and integrating disciplines may be an important key to improving science learning,” said Hughes, who’s also an ecology & evolutionary biology teaching professor. “Our hypotheses examine how integrating the arts and inquiry into core elementary school curricula in the form of dance, movement and visual arts may improve learning of abstract scientific concepts along with the accompanying academic language.”

ESCAPE partners

ESCAPE is an interdisciplinary partnership among UCI faculty members, consultants from the Orange County Department of Education and teaching artists from Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Each of these three organizations has a specific area of expertise; together, they present a formidable team assembled to support teachers in the partnering school districts, which include Anaheim City, Capistrano Unified, Irvine Unified, Orange Unified, Ocean View, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, Tustin Unified and Westminster.

“We’ve brought together a diverse team of educational community leaders in a concerted effort to develop a methodology to improve understanding of the concepts, skills and language of science at a pivotal point in K-12 education, the ushering in of the Next Generation Science Standards,” Hughes said.

He added that UCI, which has a history of innovative teacher training, possesses a deep pool of faculty members from which ESCAPE has recruited science, technology, engineering and mathematics experts to vet lesson plan content.

The Orange County Department of Education is a public education agency offering support services to 27 school districts and more than 600 schools and 20,000 educators serving over 500,000 students. Aiming to equip those students to succeed in 21st century colleges and careers, the OCDE incorporates STEM practices into original lesson plans aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts brings a track record of excellence that extends well beyond that of a typical arts organization. It’s one of the largest providers of arts education programs in the country and each year reaches more than 300,000 young people and their families. The center has supplied ESCAPE with highly qualified master teaching artists from its renowned education and community engagement programs, which is reflective of its strong commitment to broadening the base of understanding, appreciation and support for the arts through meaningful initiatives and partnerships.

How ESCAPE works

The ESCAPE project hosts three summer institutes for teachers. One devoted to Earth sciences took place this summer, and life sciences and physical sciences institutes are planned for future years. At these institutes, 150 participants explore inquiry-based science kits with OCDE staff and are trained in arts-based instructional techniques by master teaching artists from Segerstrom Center. During each subsequent school year, the artists co-teach three lessons in the teachers’ classrooms. Three-year participants will receive 220 cumulative hours of professional development, and the project anticipates reaching about 21,000 students in grades 3-5 during its development phase.

While ESCAPE’s initial focus is limited to Orange County, the project’s ultimate goal is to improve K-12 science education across the country. Under Hughes’ direction, UCI students are creating videos of the science-arts lessons for use in an online certificate program that will be offered through UCI’s Distance Learning Center, starting in the fourth year of the project. Online implementation should drastically increase project reach far beyond that of traditional professional development.

ESCAPE’s co-principal investigators include Penelope Collins, Ph.D., and Phil Collins, Ph.D., of UCI; Christine Olmstead, Ph.D., of OCDE; and K-12 representative Kathie Nielsen of the Tustin Unified School District. Among the senior personnel are Drew Bailey, Ph.D., of UCI; Doug Grove, Ph.D., of Multi-Dimensional Education Inc.; Sarah Eichorn, Ph.D., dean of distance learning at UCI; Segerstrom Center vice president of education Talena Mara; and ESCAPE assistant director of media Alex Ray of UCI.

Media contact: Tom Vasich, Writer – tmvasich@uci.edu

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy.

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