In 2015, when President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, it signaled a turning point in US public Education. A sweeping reform of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, ESSA allows schools to move away from “teaching to the test” to more well-rounded curriculum development, including a new emphasis on integrating STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) with the arts to create STEAM .
For Agnes Chavez, an award-winning new media artist, educator, and social entrepreneur based in Taos, New Mexico, ESSA proves what she’s been contending all along: that the arts and the sciences make excellent bedfellows. “Creativity and innovation are core skills that youth need to be ready to thrive in the 21st century,” says Chavez, who was born in New York City to Cuban immigrant parents. In 2009, noting that artists’ skills were an underutilized resource that could be valuable in STEM education, she founded the STEMarts LAB, which brings new media artists into the classroom to help youth develop STEAM skills. The STEMarts LAB has created educational programming for such institutions as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the International Symposium on Electronic Art, and The PASEO art festival in Taos. In 2015 Chavez brought her STEMarts LAB project Projecting pARTicles to Cuban kids at the Havana Biennial, where she also created an immersive, particle physics–inspired art installation called Origination Point.
Chavez is a living example of the creativity and innovation skills she imparts to youth. In 1996, when she wanted to teach her two-year-old son Spanish, she developed a method that combined art, music, and games—the things kids naturally like to do—and then created an education business based on that approach. Now in its 20th year, SUBE, her award-winning language-teaching system, has been used to teach more than half a million kids worldwide.
We spoke with Chavez about how she integrates arts education into STEM subjects, the surprising similarities between art and physics, and why she believes science can save us from ourselves (it’s not what you think).
Hip Latina: You’ve been fascinated with quantum physics since you were in art school in your twenties. Why art and physics? That seems an unlikely combination.
Agnes Chavez: Maybe because physicists, like artists, are exploring those hidden dimensions, the essence of what everything is. The main thing is that quantum physics has really changed our worldview. We’ve created this world where we’re threatening our own survival by depleting and depleting [resources], thinking it won’t have any effect. But science shows us how we are really interconnected, on a biological level, on a subatomic level; that we’re more than just physical bodies, that there is an energetic realm to us; and how we are more like systems and networks than like [discrete] objects. I believe in a better world, and I think that the new worldview of science is something that is necessary in order to shift the kind of world that we’ve created now.
HL: Mainstream education is finally seeing the value of integrating the arts and sciences, but you’ve always viewed them as complementary. Why?
AC: For me art is a tool for social change and a tool for personal change. It starts with the individual, because art is something that helps you understand yourself. And that’s why I like science, because science too is a tool for understanding who we are. The arts are also a way of knowing—and by “the arts” I mean writing and sculpting and music and theater and dance—and the humanities are a way of knowing. So for me it’s all about bringing awareness to the value of the arts and humanities as much as the science and the technology. That’s mostly what my projects try to do, because all of those dimensions are part of what makes us human.
HL: Could you talk about how you engage students in STEM by bringing art making into the mix? For example, right now you’re planning STEMarts LAB programming for The PASEO art festival in Taos.
AC: For The PASEO, we always pick multimedia artists who work with technology or science or engineering in some way, artists who are socially conscious and community focused. We bring one PASEO artist into every middle and high school in Taos. They teach the students how to create the kind of art that they’ve developed—their unique hybridizations of art, science, and technology. At the end the students get to show their work with the artists on-site as part of the festival. Empowerment, engagement is the main thing I see—not just of the kids but of the teachers, the schools, the community.
For the Havana Biennial, Cuba’s been cut off from technology, so these kids who were in my workshop had never even touched an iPad. And there they were, painting with iPads [with an art app called Tagtool and projecting onto the building in the park. And to have Dr. Luis Castillo [a physicist Chavez brought in from CERN, the famed particle physics lab in Geneva] share the latest knowledge—they sat there with their eyes wide open. I felt really proud to be part of bringing that to Cuba. In relation to my heritage, that was always my dream, that when I went to Cuba I would not just bring extra socks and underwear, but actually do a project there.