Executive Summary

The NSF-sponsored workshop, “Advancing STEM Through Culturally Situated Arts-Based Learning,” held at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, GA on March 28 – 29, 2014, brought together an interdisciplinary pool of professionals in the Learning Sciences, STEM and Art education, and contemporary art and crafts. Culturally Situated Arts-Based Learning (CSABL) places artifacts in a cultural (and historical) context, to understand the role that culture and art plays in learning different disciplines, and consider new research directions for future research. CSABL fosters learning through cultural narratives, artifacts (images, symbols, metaphors), and self-reflective, hands-on methods.

Workshop participants were interested in the role that culture and art plays among underrepresented ethnic learners that, as studies show, are increasingly uninterested and disengaged in STEM. The goals of the workshop were (i) to engage a dialogue among researchers, artists, and cultural practitioners whose work integrates informal science education through its content, methodology, and technological implementation. (ii) to advance the understanding of the potential impacts of culturally situated design strategies and present arts-based learning and research methods that can extend participation and understanding of STEM, and (iii) to build the capacity for sustained collaboration across disciplines for the benefit of research and practice. There exist successful studies in culturally situated design, arts-based learning and digital media but none have combined all three of these areas to engage learners from underrepresented ethnic groups (UEGs). The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop required the assembly of distinguished researchers, artists and practitioners from a diverse array of interrelated fields, including the Learning Sciences, STEM and Art education, and contemporary art and crafts.

The participants were selected as those reaching out from their traditional academic and professional disciplines to study the role of culture and art in enhancing STEM learning.

Organization of the Workshop

The format of the workshop was designed to enhance creative and effective discussions. Prior to the event the project director distributed seed questions to all participants to promote conceptualization of the issues; a pre-workshop questionnaire was distributed; and in order to facilitate active independent positions, the participants were required to prepare and submit either one page projections of their ideas for research or 2-3 slides and images of relevant research or artwork.

Participants' projections can be viewed on the Readings page and images from the workshop are posted in a workshop Flickr Group.

At the meeting, three short 15 minute presentations were followed by three Research Goals Brainstorms breakout sessions in each topic areas, which proved to be a very effective strategy. The Brainstorm sessions became a creative focus for promoting integration of the diverse groups, and generated significant reconceptualization in the topics of the preceding presentations.


A Creative Social evening session at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts immersed participants and other audience members into a direct exposure to the creative expression and performance by Moon Medicin, the dream child of visual artist and keyboardist Sanford Biggers. This combination of players – percussionist Swiss Chris, Martin Luther on lead guitar and lead vocals, the singing turntablist Jahi Sundance, and Mark Hines, the bassist with live video tendencies – convened to concoct a fuel elixir for inter-dimensional travel and perceptual shifts. Music included a carefully curated selection of covers and original compositions by Biggers, Sundance and Martin. Workshop participants met with Biggers and other band members prior to the performance.


Two Keynote Speakers, Brazilian artist Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez and African American artist Sanford Biggers, spoke about how their work integrates culture, art and STEM subjects. Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez shared via Skype her work that uses dendrochronology or the dating and study of annual rings in trees to create new narratives. Ramos-Velasquez noted that in many indigenous cultures’ the notion of time is circular, not linear, as each generation relives some aspect of their culture, e.g. “call and response” or the hip-hop “cypher” or circle. Sanford Biggers presented Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II with David Ellis that makes visible the hip-hop cypher (as a breakdancing floor), a figure or symbol that is also based on the naturally occurring circle, or traditional Buddhist/Hindu Mandala. Ramos-Velasquez and Biggers re-purpose cultural artifacts to create dynamic, representational artworks and spaces for audience engagement, sound and performance.


On the final day the participants rejoined their Breakout Groups to work on summarizing recommendations for new research directions in culturally situated arts-based learning. Although it was anticipated that there would be more debate due to the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds most of the sharing and idea generation remained focused on the main topics.


Ph.D. student/project director Nettrice Gaskins shared with participants a work-in-progress suite of Culturally Situated Design Tools being developed by a team led by Dr. Ron Eglash that explore afrofuturism and mathematics/technology principles. The tools include the work of Sanford Biggers, Saya Woolfalk (not in attendance), and Xenobia Bailey. Participants were encouraged to make their own connections and collaborate on new projects after the workshop.


Follow Up and Next Steps

The breakout groups addressed questions regarding strategic principles and directions for future research and support that include:

Strategic Principles
Are there general strategic principles that should be applied to future research in the enhancement of culturally situated arts-based learning? Some of the principles that were brought out in the discussions were:

  • CSABL should foster and sustain educator/researcher collaborations across disciplines. Building cross-community collaborations, e.g. education, art and STEM can also help break down existing silos.
  • CSABL can help learners make connections between STEM disciplines and see the correlations that improve overall learning. As a result, learners receive a more synesthetic, relevant, less fragmented, and enriching learning experience.
  • CSABL can be used to teach multi-modal literacies. The integration of multiple modes of communication and creative expression can enhance or transform the meaning of STEM concepts.
  • CSABL should provide professional development to teachers for cultural and visual literacy. This should include systematic intensive and extensive professional development for teachers, e.g. pre-service or in-service.
  • CSABL can improve teacher competency to reach different types of learners.
  • CSABL can create, disseminate and evaluate products to increase UEG interest in STEM.

Key Research Directions
From the array of questions that were identified, certain common themes emerged from the Breakout Sessions, encapsulated by broad questions as the following:

  • There is a need to evaluate the effectiveness of CSABL strategies. What works and why with CSABL, e.g. developing specific assessments?
  • How can new assessment strategies and educational research help teachers place less emphasis on standardized tests?
  • How can educational research support or foster different types of knowledge?
  • Can CSABL support a more integrated idea of learning, e.g. inter-generational, blended, environmental, and so on?
  • In what ways does CSABL define or redefine technology?
  • How can researchers and practitioners get the ear of policy makers (ex. science and technology policy) to initiate CSABL on a larger scale, e.g. local and regional, across pipelines (ex. national to local)?
  • Can CSABL get cross-agency support to implement a diverse range of partnerships, e.g. private foundations, federal, local governments, banks, place-based?
  • In what ways can CSABL make social justice a focus of research and funding to engage underrepresented minorities in STEM and broaden participation?

Workshop evaluator Tom McKlin will conduct participant interviews and post-workshop surveys during summer 2014 and a final report will be created and disseminated in 2014/2015.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. NSF 1345424. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.