Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Action Arts and Science Program

“Success for us is as simple as seeing a child go from saying ‘I can’t to ‘I can.’” -- Amber Lounsbery, Action Arts and Science Program

Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is part of a select group. It's one of the only facilities in the nation to host two accredited museums under the same roof--the Visual Arts Center and the Kirby Science Discovery Center. The Pavilion, as it's known, also boasts a performing arts center at its location. But today, WPAS becomes a member of an even more rarified club. It's one of 12 organizations receiving a 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation's highest honor celebrating organizations across the country that are doing an outstanding job of serving at-risk youth through transformative programs after-school and even on weekends. The Pavilion is receiving the honor for its Action Arts and Science Program (AASP), which it describes as " a safe forum for self-expression, self-exploration, and imagination." As expressed when we spoke with AASP Coordinator Amber Lounsbery, the program aims not only to equip its participants with artistic skills and scientific know-how, but also to develop confident leaders who are successful at school and at home. Here's more from our e-mail interview with Lounsbery on AASP's origin story, how the project works, and why its mission is especially important to her. 

NEA: In your own words, what’s the mission of the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences?

AMBER LOUNSBERY: The mission of the Washington Pavilion speaks uniquely to me, as before it was the Pavilion, it was a high school (mine, class of 1989). For me, the mission is personal as I think about my experiences as a youth and how they have shaped me to come full circle to work in this amazing organization. In its over 100-year history, the building has been a place of learning and community, and I don’t think that’s any different today. The combination of performing arts, science, and visual arts centers under one roof shows the commitment of the Pavilion to not only celebrate the best of these things but also to engage the entire community in what we have to offer so they can continue to enrich their lives in positive ways.

NEA: What was the need that led to the creation of the Action Arts and Science Program (AASP)?

LOUNSBERY: When the Washington Pavilion first opened its doors, many people in the community were skeptical. They saw the Pavilion as just another private group that the city would have to subsidize. While many people saw it as a place that the general public couldn’t afford or utilize, another more vibrant group of people saw the empty high school as an opportunity and a place to fill a void where few opportunities existed to view and appreciate arts in a live setting. As the Washington Pavilion’s momentum continued, Action Arts was created to help bridge the sides, taking the museum-quality resources of the Pavilion out to those groups and organizations who could benefit the most from them. As the idea caught wind, so did the program, going from a few youth programs in the first year to about 16 in 2012 when the idea of adding a science component was considered. All through the 2000s, in the youth development field, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education was the focus and many programs were generously funded by adding that emphasis. Because, Action Arts relied heavily on donations and grants (there were no user fees collected for this outreach), a large grant was pursued with an integrated science component in mind. This and the continuing narrative of student deficiency in STEM subjects across the local school district prompted RoseAnn Hofland, Community Learning Center director, and her team to pursue a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2012, Action Arts became Action Arts and Science and now [we have] 23 programs in 21 locations and see about 500 kids per week.

NEA: What’s the goal of the program? Can you describe the community that you serve?

LOUNSBERY: The goal of AASP mirrors closely the mission of the Washington Pavilion: to educate, engage, and enlighten youth (and their families) on the benefits of arts and science. AASP is the major outreach arm of the Pavilion, bringing the resources and knowledge of the Pavilion to those in our community who traditionally have had fewer opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities. So our goals then are to not only spark interest in arts and science but to provide access to art and science educational experiences that can enhance a student’s knowledge and academic progress.

The city of Sioux Falls has changed dramatically in the past 20 years going from a population of just over 100,000 people to now 250,000 in the Sioux Falls metro area. Sioux Falls has become a main hub for refugee/immigration relocation services which in turn has changed the diversity and socioeconomic makeup of the city. Over 140 languages or dialects are spoken and refugees are currently being relocated from Burma, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as a variety of other countries.

AASP focuses on Title One schools where 50 percent or more of the students who attend receive free or reduced meals. In short, we see the kids who really need us the most.

NEA: Why pair art and science? How do the two disciplines work together/enhance each other?

LOUNSBERY: Art and science are intrinsically linked; the essence of art and science is discovery. Both artists and scientists work in a systematic but creative way. Knowledge and understanding are built up through pieces of art or a series of labs. In the classroom or afterschool program, integrating science and visual art can provide students with the latitude to think, discover, and make connections. Art-based activities help students comprehend abstract scientific theories and improve their critical thinking skills. By incorporating science and the arts together, students are immersed in activities that allow them to experience and then express the natural world around them.

NEA: How is the program structured? What types of activities do the young people engage in?

LOUNSBERY: The Action Arts and Science program takes place in most locations once a week during the afterschool time (between 3:45 and 5:00 pm) and during the school year. We typically start programming in September a few weeks after school starts and then run throughout the year, ending in May when the school year ends. We program between 32 to 34 weeks of lessons. Our instructors will typically be at a site for 45 minutes to an hour conducting a lesson that is engaging and hands-on. I have spent a lot of time developing lessons that mirror the school day and/or closely follow what is being taught in a given quarter. I focus on working with the school standards but in new or different hands-on ways.

Some activities our students have participated in include a recent space unit where we studied the science of the sun by painting a giant scale model sun while talking about its size and shape. From there we made sun art using construction paper and painters tape. In discussion about planets and galaxies, students learned about these celestial bodies by envisioning and creating their own 3D space scene out of various papers, glitter glue, and oil pastels.

Our most current unit is studying the most integrated subject of them all, which is Leonardo Da Vinci. In this unit, students will invent and test their own parachutes and they will also practice one-point perspective and study Da Vinci’s most famous paintings that demonstrate it.

Other examples of activities have included learning about animal habitats by designing and drawing their own backyard habitat and learning about earthquakes by manipulating clay plates to emulate faults and plate shifts and then creating wave art using construction paper and oil pastels.

NEA: How do youth benefit from the program? How does the larger community benefit from the program?

LOUNSBERY: A high-quality afterschool program like Action Arts and Science can have strong positive effects on children’s academic, social, and emotional lives, and this is especially true for at-risk youth. Some research suggests that what students do during the out-of-school time hours has as much bearing on their success as what they do during the school day. Through AASP students learn a wide range of transferrable skills and experience that will benefit them in the formal school environment but also out of school, enriching their personal lives and [helping them to develop] leadership, confidence, and critical thinking skills. Many of our students have been with the program for a succession of years and changes in self-confidence and attitude are recognized as consistently evolving.

Above all, youth benefit from the positive caring adults who act as mentors to our participants in addition to teaching them about art and science. By building up a child’s self-esteem and focusing on life skills, we are helping to “build” better kids, which in turn creates productive adults who ultimately will care about their community and give back in various ways. The larger community benefits because our program helps keep kids off the streets during a very, vulnerable part of the day when school is out and parents aren’t home. It should be said that an investment in afterschool programs in general can be a powerful antidote to youth crime. They provide a safe haven that keeps kids away from violence. They provide an alternative to gangs and street life, allowing kids to develop new skills and interact positively with peers. They offer youth hope and opportunities, offsetting the sense of nihilism can cause youth to turn to crime. They contribute to economic opportunity by providing academic support and job skills.

NEA: From your point of view, what does success look like for the program? Is there a particular success story that stands out?

LOUNSBERY: Success for us is as simple as seeing a child go from saying “I can’t” to “I can.” It means we’ve sparked something. Success is also in that moment when the looks on faces go from confusion to wonder and amazement and “aha” moments. Perhaps ultimate success is seeing the growth and change from a shy, quiet, or unmotivated kid to [one who is] self-confident and successful at school, home, work. A continued interest and funding in our program would also show us that we are an important part of the fabric of our community. Perhaps the best expression of success is when a child begs mom (who made the mistake of picking them up early) to stay because it’s Pavilion Day!

NEA: What are some of the challenges of the program? What have been some unexpected or surprising out comes

LOUNSEBERY: Perhaps the most significant challenge for AASP is finding enthusiastic and dedicated instructors to work with our continually expanding program. While AASP instructors receive a small stipend for their time, it isn’t what drives and motivates them to go above and beyond for our kids. It takes that special person to first of all love kids and second become that positive caring adult with all of the answers. We also struggle with finding ways to increase access to programs and facilities of the Washington Pavilion for the families we serve. AASP hosts two-three family nights a year where we invite our participants and their families to a fun night onsite. Since families have to find their own transportation, it’s a burden to many of our lower income families and a deterrent to attending when families only have one car or rely on public transportation.

NEA: Anything else you’d like to add say before my final question?

LOUNSBERY: It’s truly an honor to receive this prestigious award. As someone who has spent my entire professional career in youth development, recognition like this is significant and life changing.

NEA: Fill in the blank: Art matters because

LOUNSBERY: Art matters because it is one of the few things that connects people and helps us celebrate our differences and similarities in meaningful ways. Art is freedom to express yourself creatively and honestly. 

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