Advancing STEM Through Culturally Situated Arts-Based Learning

Nettrice R. Gaskins

Ph.D. student researcher, School of Literature, Media and Communication
Georgia Institute of Technology

Augmented Reality in Open Spaces (AROS) was part of the ISEA2012 Visiting Artist program. I co-facilitated a three-week workshop with eight high school students from the ¡Explora! science museum internship program to create an interactive, physical mural which can be seen at the Wells Park Community Project. The objectives for this workshop were for participants to learn about and relate ancient Mimbres designs to their daily lives; to use existing software that shows the mathematical principles embodied in the designs they construct; and to create an interactive mural using mobile augmented reality (AR) software. Workshop activities included brainstorming sessions for participants to generate ideas that reflect the rich tradition of Indigenous art in New Mexico, transferring these designs to a large wall mural, and enhancing the mural with AR. The experience of interacting with the mural through a touchscreen, camera-enabled device blends virtual and physical spaces and resulted in a greater appreciation for the value of open space. The discovery of algorithmic principles in cultural expressions through the use of CSDT’s enhanced and encouraged STEM learning and provided a model for engaging ethnic students in developing mathematical and computational skills. By participating in a design process that explored ISEA2012 sub-themes (creative economies, trans-species habitats and radical cosmologies), students were acquainted with possible ways to incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in their future plans and work.

Project Rationale

The term free-choice learning describes the type of learning that occurs most frequently outside of school; in particular, it refers to the type of learning typical facilitated by museums, science centers, a wide range of community-based organizations, print and digital media. [1] After conducting research in culturally situated arts-based learning and design practices I reasoned that informal learning environments and the possibility for free-choice learning activities could influence under-represented ethnic learners’ use of and opinions about STEM. I adapted the Contextual Model of Learning. [2] Some highlights include:

Personal Context – Learning is facilitated when participants’ expectations are fulfilled by displays of works of art or other items of interest. This includes relating personal interest and ‘new’ knowledge from a foundation of prior experience and knowledge.

Sociocultural Context – Learning is both an individual and group experience. We recognize that all communications such as exhibitions, TV, Internet, and so on represent a socially mediated form of culturally specific communication between the producers of the medium and the user. In this context, it is important to provide access to a variety of new media types and platforms.

Physical Context – Learning is situated, or bound to the environment in which it occurs. Creating personal connections and interactions in a museum or recreation space enhances the motivation and expectations of learners. Also, learning is always diverse in a free-choice context because people have different learning agendas and purposes and emotion is a vital aspect of learning and problem solving.

Prior Work

Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs) is a suite of 11 computer software programs that focus on individual facets of African American, Native American or Latin American culture where math plays a role in design. These tools educate students about the mathematics principles used to design cornrow hairstyles, Navajo rugs, Yupik parka patterns and Latin music, among others. Research suggests that use of CSDTs can raise math achievement and may improve technological career aspirations for ethnic minority students. [3] CSDTs, developed by Dr. Ron Eglash and his team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, make it possible to produce algorithmically based drawings on a screen in much the same way as artists in ancient cultures produced patterns that communicated various aspects of everyday life.

According to a review of national projects, arts-based learning broadens and increases access to education by providing multiple ways, along with representation from multiple cultures, to derive meaning from academic and social curricula. [4] Compared to the national average, a greater percentage of the urban population is made up of ethnic minorities. [5] This cultural diversity is one of the greatest challenges facing educators, questioning what methods will work for the group as a whole, what topics will engage them, and how can projects best motivate them to learn challenging STEM concepts? According to Dr. Jessie Whitehead, professor at Southern Connecticut State University, graffiti can be a “springboard for the examination of personal identity, commercial design, social history and community conflict.” [6] Projects like the Mural Music & Arts Project (MMAP) Graffiti Arts Project (GAP) teaches graffiti art as a tool for positive self-expression and an alternative to unsafe behaviors. [7]

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, a collaborative effort by members of the Digital Youth Project, is a three-year ethnographic investigation that looks at how young people are living and learning with new media in varied settings – at home, in after school programs and in online spaces. By focusing on media practices in the everyday contexts of family and peer interaction this study views the relationship of youth and new media as situated within the broader structural conditions of childhood and the negotiations with adults that frame the experience of youth in the United States. [8] The ¡Explora! internship program provided a space where the lead artist and participants could “mess around” with mobile augmented reality (AR) technology (new media) that mediated between “geeking out” and “hanging out.”

The AROS Workshop

Our job as lead artists and group facilitators was to scaffold an interactive, physical mural design process that used culturally situated arts-based learning methods with technology to encourage the exploration of ISEA2012 themes. We had the challenge of how to impart cultural, scientific and mathematical information that engaged ethnic youth participants. To summarize the process, we employed the following methods:

– Cultural heritage (e.g. ancient Mimbres) artifacts and vernacular art forms (e.g. street art) were provided as cultural scaffolding to address participants’ backgrounds and interests.
– CSDTs such as Graffiti Grapher to engage math and technology concepts tied to Next Generation Science Standards and simulate the participants’ cultural designs.
– Participatory Design to tap participant knowledge, skills and understanding; to research themes based on cultural artifacts and vernacular art forms.
– A prototype digital system that combines physical art with overlaid augmented reality (AR) content to be viewed with mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones.

One of the challenges addressed by this workshop was how to graphically translate mathematical systems like Cartesian and polar coordinates that communicate cultural ethos. During the first week, participants researched the history and meaning of the ancient Mimbres pottery tradition in the American southwest. This included painted ceremonial bowls that are adorned with geometric and pictorial designs of animals, insects, mythical figures and people. They viewed work by ethnic artists such as RETNA who fuses together influences from ancient Indigenous designs, calligraphy and graffiti. Participants created their own motifs and used the Graffiti Grapher CSDT to simulate these designs. They learned how mobile AR worked by playing a cultural heritage game. Participants worked with the visiting artists to combine their individual designs and ideas and create a composition for an outdoor mural. The theme of “Life and Death” provided a focus for the group.

After the first week, a smaller group worked on the physical mural at the Wells Park site and the other group worked at ¡Explora! on the augmented reality content for the mural. Groups switched after the second week to give participants an equal amount of time with both projects. The mobile AR group created a collage of digital images of the New Mexico landscape (and sound) to represent the theme, repeating the spatial pattern established in the mural. They learned how to insert these images using HTML coding. At Wells Park, participants used the grid method to scale up and paint the outdoor mural design. The visiting artists facilitated this processes. As a final step AR markers were painted on the sides of the mural. AR overlays and sound for the mural are triggered when pointing cameras on mobile devices at the AR markers.

Fig 1. AROS Mural at Wells Park, 2012. Albuquerque, NM. © Nettrice R. Gaskins and Laurie Marion. Used with permission.

AROS Mural at Wells Park, 2012. Albuquerque, NM. ©Nettrice R. Gaskins and Laurie Marion. (Used with permission.)

Based on observations and data collected during the workshop we discovered that using content from diverse cultural backgrounds and providing access to new technologies directly inspires and engages indigenous youth. Participants were invited to present with the lead team of artists at the ISEA2012 conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Workshop participants talked about what they learned and which aspects of the workshop they liked the most such as coding for mobile AR. Audience members received handouts with an outline of the mural design and instructions for how to view the AR content. The workshop and final presentation demonstrated culturally situated arts-based learning with new technology that can be used in the future to design and implement free-choice learning activities in a variety of learning settings.


The AROS Augmented Reality Mural Project was innovative in that it combined, in a novel way, methods that have already been proven successful, sparking creativity and innovation by linking culturally situated arts-based learning and design using new media. The workshop illuminated the ways these methods can be used to engage students from underrepresented ethnic groups in developing STEM skills. Lessons learned from this workshop have been used to contribute to the design of innovative instructional models that extends best practices to create higher interest, motivation among underrepresented minorities who, as research shows, are largely disinterested in STEM fields. For example, AROS is featured in the STEMArts curriculum tool that was built for the ISEA2012: Machine Wilderness conference. [9] The online tool is aligned with the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning as a teaching tool for middle and high school students. The tool provides core ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards that are reflected in the work of professional artists, through their personal perspectives on STEM. The AROS workshop and, by extension, the STEMArts tool provides meaningful ways to engage youth in STEM through creativity and innovation.


1. John H. Falk, Joe E. Heimlich, and Susan Foutz, Free-choice Learning and the Environment (Plymouth, UK: Altamira Press, 2009), p. 64.
2. John H. Falk and Martin Storksdieck, “Using the contextual model of learning to understand visitor learning from a science center exhibition,” Science Education, 89 (2005), pp. 744–778.
3. Ron Eglash, Audrey Bennett, Casey O’Donnell, Sybillyn Jennings, and Margaret Cintorino, “Culturally Situated Design Tools: Ethnocomputing from Field Site to Classroom,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 108, Issue 2 (2006), pp. 347–362.
4. Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Opportunity and accountability: Arts environments as models of equity, quoted in Arts-Based Teaching and Learning: Review of the Literature, (accessed April 13, 2013).
5. “Who Are Urban Students?,” on Science Education Research Center website, (accessed April 13, 2013).
6. Jessie. L. Whitehead, “Graffiti: The Use of the Familiar,” Art Education, Vol. 57, No. 6 (Nov., 2004), pp. 25-32.
7. “Graffiti Arts Project,” on Mural Music & Arts Project website, (accessed April 13, 2013).
8. Ito, Mizuko, et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2009).
9. “AROS Augmented Reality Mural,” on ISEA2013 STEMArts curriculum tool website, (accessed April 13, 2013).


Nettrice Gaskins is a Ph.D. candidate and researcher in Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Program. Her work investigates culturally situated arts-based learning and new media, their invention, and use in underrepresented communities of practice. This includes the use of new media tools and platforms, and existing cultural artifacts. She is a writer/columnist for Art21, the producer of the Peabody award-winning PBS series, Art in the Twenty-First Century. She has other works published online and in Meet Me at the Fair: A World’s Fair Reader, scheduled to be published by Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press.