There are many who worry that by emphasizing the STEM disciplines, others will suffer. This fear is not unfounded, and indeed we have seen art and music programs cut from schools in favor of pursuing STEM programming (and dollars). Presidential hopefuls have been coming down hard on Liberal Arts lately as part of their platforms and de-emphasize the importance of education in the arenas of literature, philosophy, visual arts, and other creative branches. But, are STEM disciplines and the Arts really opposites? Do we have to choose one or the other?
At USAT we’d answer a resounding “NO!” to both of those questions. As our society becomes more dependent on technology, the more important the arts become, not less. It all goes back to what we discussed in the first post of this series: Fostering creativity is the key to future success, not any particular career path or line on a resume. The arts are an incredibly powerful tool for encouraging creativity and giving students the confidence to take positive risks in any number of arenas.
Learning an instrument or mastering a technique also take diligence and hard work. Perseverance is a powerful lesson, especially at this time in our history where so much is at a person’s fingertips and the gadgets and apps that are being developed are largely motivated by making something easier. We are being trained to expect instant gratification at every turn, but the arts require the opposite.
Further, the arts are not divorced from the STEM disciplines. There are ways to have these things intersect and play to the strengths of a variety of people. For instance, science visualization is a growing field that incorporates scientific knowledge, technological know-how, and aesthetic principles as a way to share new knowledge with a wide audience. These visualizations sometimes require a musical score to underpin it and reach that audience on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.
Performing arts, such as theater, music, and dance, are even more vulnerable to cuts than visual arts. Though many high schools do put on plays and musicals, imagine how much higher the participation rate would be if students are introduced to public speaking and performance skills in their elementary and middle school years. The person who never gets a chance to perform before an audition is going to do poorly compared to someone who has had prior exposure and guidance – and this is not just limited to the stage. Adults have to give presentations all the time in the course of their jobs, or even to be considered for a job in many cases. People who are in purely academic fields, including STEM disciplines, must present papers and posters at conferences, not to mention teaching the next generation of students.
Incorporating performance and public speaking are major motivations behind the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box part of US Academic Triathlon. We give students a chance to practice their presentation skills in a safe environment that is less high-pressure than a class presentation or an audition. Yes, USAT is a competition, but there are three Round Robin tournaments every year that are strictly for practice (not to mention tons of fun!). Our head writer also comes from a Liberal Arts background in Anthropology and Art History (not to mention a personal interest in dance, theater, and studio arts), so you can also expect to see the arts finding their way into Mind Sprints and Face-Off! more often.
This concludes our USAT and STEM series, but if you missed the other articles here are the links:
If you are a parent or educator, you have probably heard the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) acronym thrown around a lot lately. This is due, in a large part, to studies that have shown a decline in interest in these subjects by American students. As a whole, our society will suffer from this trend as this generation enters adulthood without the tools to think critically and find ways to meet new challenges.
In response, federal and local governments, as well as independent philanthropic organizations, have implemented several measures and funding opportunities over the last few years. This takes the form of recruiting teachers trained in STEM fields, training existing teachers in best practices for integrating STEM into their classrooms, and funding for special projects that promote student interest in these intersecting fields.
At United States Academic Triathlon, we have always worked to provide our students with questions and challenges that span a variety of disciplines, including those represented by STEM. Over the next several weeks, this blog will feature posts that pertain to each of the four subjects, the ways the USAT addresses them, and creative ways to inspire students to embrace them.
No subject exists in a vacuum, and creativity is something that can enhance any endeavor. After all, computers can do complex calculations but they will never be “inspired” to do them. It is curiosity that drives us to ask questions and seek to understand our world and creativity that provides us with a means of applying tools such as mathematics and engineering. As a species, we have done a great job of answering many of the questions that confront us in our daily lives, but there is so much more to learn. The “way it has always been done” is not necessarily the “best” way, and what makes something better than something else is completely objective.
The pursuit of new and creative solutions can result in failure, but this does not negate the journey. Oftentimes, these “failures” turn out to be successes – they are simply the answer to a different question. For instance, when the glue commonly used in sticky notes was created, the people working on it were trying to create an extremely strong adhesive. When they “failed” to make something super sticky they opened the door to possibilities of impermanent adhesives, and just one application now sits in desk drawers all over the world.
As parents and educators, the best thing we can do for the next generation is to help them stay curious and creative. This can take many forms. We can help them to research the answer to a question they ask, encourage them to read for pleasure, make them turn off their electronic devices in favor of going out into the world, or play games that require imagination. At the beginning of a task, ask your children or students how they would solve a problem. Even if you feel like you know the “best” or “right” answer, ask them for their opinions even if they might be totally outside of the realm of possibilities (fix the broken pipe with peanut butter? Probably not).
This type of interaction encourages them to think constructively and creatively, and reinforces a sense that their ideas matter. Only after they feel confident in their ability to ask and answer questions can they use tools like the STEM disciplines to answer them.
Winning isn’t everything, but it is a shame when a team misses an opportunity to get points because of an oversight.Here are a few ways to help your students excel during the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box round.
1.Read the Prompt thoroughly. The P.A.R.T.Y. challenges are never longer than one page. Even though 45 minutes isn’t a long time to do everything needed to develop a skit, it is worth a team’s time to read the prompt more than once.
2.Look at the scoring rubric. It is not a mystery how the performances are going to be scored, the scoring rubric is included on the team copy. Unless penalties are assessed, each performance scores a minimum of 30 points, because we don’t believe in zeroes, and a maximum of 117 points. Some categories stay the same, and others change depending on the story being told. Each section of the “Team’s Use of Materials” category is always worth a maximum of 10 points, for instance, and is about the appearance of costumes and sets. The section with the largest potential for earning points always centers on the plot, and the team’s ability to address the central problem. On its own, this part is worth up to 25 points. Some prompts also require teams to do something specific, like recite a poem or add music, and if gets left out it can mean a loss of 10 points.
3. Take notes. Every Meet there are teams who have to prepare their performance during the first Tri, which means it can be hours between seeing the prompt and when the performance finally takes place. Even though teams can’t take the prompt with them in order to ensure that no other team gets an unfair advantage, there is no reason they can’t take notes about what they are going to do in their skits. In the excitement of performing, kids can sometimes forget their lines and leave out something key to their story. These notes can be kept “back stage” and referred to during the performance to make sure that nothing important gets forgotten. Another place where these notes can come into play is if the team uses a narrator, who can hold onto them during the performance and refer to them throughout.
Just like a character’s costume, the props they use can make people with certain occupations easily recognizable. A person wearing a tie is some kind of professional, a person with a tie AND a clipboard is probably an inspector. A person wearing a baseball hat could just be a fan, but if they are also carrying a glove or bat, that will do even more to make identification by the audience possible.
In some cases, the right prop can also replace a costume. But, if this is your team’s approach, that should also mean that props get enough attention. If you are going to use a single object to tell us everything we need to know about a character, you had better make it a good object. Here a few examples of props that can help you tell the story, even if there is no costume to aid you.
1. Wands- witches, wizards, fairy godmothers and the like all carry these magical sticks. Oftentimes, teams get drinking straws in their boxes, which can serve as a basis for a wand. But don’t just point a straw at your foes, make sure to add something like a star to the end, or have another person throwing bits of paper to show that magic is coming out of it.
2. Scrolls- Some prompts explicitly call for a narrator, but really you can add this pseudo-character to any story. One benefit is that they do not necessarily need a costume, but they do a lot to tell the story and keep it on track. If you do have a narrator, give them a scroll with the script or even just an outline of the skit so they can keep the action moving if someone drops a line, or make sure to keep important parts from being left out by mistake. A bard, herald, or even a royal cook on her way tot he market in the Medieval age could carry scroll as well.
3. Weapons- There is no official policy against violence in the P.A.R.T.Y. performances, but in general we have found that judges respond better to humor than to drama or violence. But, that doesn’t mean that weapons can’t be employed to help tell your story. Even without any armor, a person carrying a broadsword is probably a knight. Maybe your cowboy doesn’t have a ten-gallon hat, but he does have a six-shooter that he pulls on the bad guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an alien who carries a ray gun, either.
Another interesting thing I noticed in my own USAT days, as well as during judging, is that oftentimes the idea for the answer to the prompt comes from the materials available. More than once I have seen multiple teams decide to have a wizard in their skit because there was already something that looked like a wand in their box. On one hand, this is a good thing and they were able to make a quick decision and execute it. On the other hand, the three similar skits blended together in the minds of the judges, which made it harder to judge them individually and made them seem less creative than they really were.
To be safe from this problem and to get noticed, it is a good strategy to alter any object at least in some way before using it in a skit. If the long, shiny thing just screams “wand” at you, at least make the handle longer or have it make a silly noise when you’re using it. In general, seeing something used for something other than its intended purpose will be more memorable, and so be more likely to earn you more points. For instance, it is much more interesting to see a milk carton as a hat than to see it being used to pour imaginary milk.
My own teams never made it to State, but we sure had a lot of fun! But, for some teams, the competitive aspect of USAT is part of the experience and enjoyment of participating. For my final installment of this series, I will be posting P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Time: Close Reading in order to give some tips about maximizing points during this round of the competition.