Arts Education: Helping Students Move Forward

Ayanna Hudson of the National Endowment for the Arts and Agnes Chavez, artist, educator, and founder of STEMarts Lab
Headshots of two women, side by side.

Ayanna Hudson (credit, Gregory Gilmer)
Agnes Chavez (courtesy of Agnes Chavez)

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: This is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed. With the new school year upon us, this week we’re turning our attention to arts education and its valuable contribution to students’ creativity and well-being. Later on in the show, a look at arts education in practice with Taos artist and educator Agnes Chavez. But first, I’m joined by director of Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts Ayanna Hudson. I wanted to begin with Ayanna because the work and research here at the endowment and across the country bring the welcome news that the arts and arts education can play a singular role as students transition back to the classroom after a year of uncertainty.

Ayanna Hudson: We are really coming off of an unprecedented school year due to COVID and the forced virtual instruction that students had to learn through, as well as the forced social isolation. And any one of these situations would cause trauma and a traumatic experience for students, but all three combined is really, really unprecedented.

Jo Reed: And as students are heading back to school that really is going to be attendant with its own anxiety. And they’re going need a lot of support.

Ayanna Hudson: I couldn’t agree more. You know, as schools prepare for students to return to in-person instruction, we really have to provide support for students to help them deal with the collective trauma that they’ve all been through over the last year, year and a half. And we really must focus on their wellbeing and on their healing.

Jo Reed: And we know, the research is there, that the arts, arts education, arts integration in a classroom is amazingly helpful for supporting students’ wellbeing.

Ayanna Hudson: And, Jo, we know from our own research at the National Endowment for the Arts just how important arts education is to a student’s academic success, to increased graduation rates, to increased standardized test scores, as well as civic engagement. But I also want to talk a little bit about the role of arts education on a student’s mental wellbeing because that really, especially at this moment in time, that cannot be underscored enough. And it’s really through the process of creating art, whether it’s dance, music, theater, visual arts, even media arts, it’s through the process that students are able to express themselves. They’re able to get in touch with their emotions and their feelings, really in a way that they may not even be able to articulate. And this is especially true for our younger learners who may not even be able to form the words to express how they are feeling. And for any student, even if they’re not able to express verbally, it is through the arts that they can truly, truly express themselves and express their feelings.

Jo Reed:  You know, we’re all aware that the arts provide a creative outlet for students, but I think the fact that arts also can help students develop empathy and compassion is less known and so critically important right now.

Ayanna Hudson: And that’s why the arts are so critical, so key, and really the magic ingredient. In general for schools, but especially as students are returning from a year of, again, of virtual learning and forced social isolation. And, you know, it’s through the arts where students are expressing themselves, that they are able to cope and they are able to develop mechanisms for their own personal healing. And when we think about what students have been through, they’re really able, through the arts, to process in a new way the trauma of the last year, which leads, of course then, to their overall mental wellness. And this is critically important because students can’t learn if they’re anxious, if they’re fearful, or if they’re stressed. And it’s through the arts, as you just mentioned, where students really learn empathy for themselves to, again process the trauma that they’ve been through over the last year and a half, and then develop empathy for others as well, as they are supportive of their classmates as we all reengage with in-person instruction. And the arts really are, I believe, the tool that all schools should be using as a way to help students experience success, to help them to heal, to help them reengage in learning and in-person instruction, for many of our students for the first time in a year and a half. The other kind of magical thing about the arts is that it also helps students to reconnect with themselves and for the last year and a half, where students have been focused on, again, the trauma that we’ve been going through, it is also through the arts where we can not only heal, but we can reconnect and we can find joy in life again and we can find joy in our educational experiences.

Jo Reed: I think the other thing that is so critical about the arts right now is that for a year and a half, it’s hard not to be a passive learner when you’re on Zoom. All props to the teachers who, I’m sure...

Ayanna Hudson: Yes.

Jo Reed: …absolutely did everything that they could. But with the arts, with any creative process, you’re not passive, you’re active. You’re actively engaged.

Ayanna Hudson: You’re actively engaged and you are also actively engaged in the community. And I think when we think about reengaging with yourself and reengaging with your classmates, also reengaging with your school community, the arts definitely provide the opportunity, as you said, to be an active participant and through that active participation reengaging with your classmates, your teachers, and your school in an entirely new ways, in ways that you haven’t been able to do for the last year and a half.

Jo Reed: And that’s the joy you were referring to.

Ayanna Hudson: And that’s the joy. And that’s the joy.

Jo Reed: Ayanna, thank you so much.

Ayanna Hudson: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Ayanna Hudson –she’s the director of Arts Education here at the National Endowment for the Arts. If you go to and search for arts education, you’ll find a number of helpful resources. I’ll also provide links in the show notes. Next up—we’re going to hear from Agnes Chavez about some of the extraordinary ways art can be used in a classroom to open new worlds for students.  You’re listening to Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed—

Agnes Chavez is a sci-artist and an award-winning educator in Taos New Mexico. Now this needs a little unpacking—beginning with  sci-art which Agnes defines simply art that is created in collaboration with scientists or that explores science as a topic or as a process. In her case, she collaborates across disciplines to create data-visualized light and sound installations. Agnes is also an educator. In fact, for her, arts and education are one and the same. Back in 2009, having already designed a successful curriculum that teaches Spanish to youngsters through art, music and games, Agnes was looking for new ways to reach middle and high school students.  She decided to use the arts to develop science and math skills. The result is STEMarts Lab which designs and creates light and sound installations and then builds curriculum tools around the art. STEMarts Lab also bring artists into the classroom to work with teachers and provide hands-on workshops both in person or virtually. As it turns out, Agnes was able to evolve this innovative curriculum to directly speak to the students’ needs during the last pandemic year. 

Jo Reed:  You both create curriculum that uses art to develop science skills and you make that available for teachers to use in their classrooms. And you also run workshops yourself. So you work directly with students. And I’m curious about this past year when students were learning virtually and whether you developed programs to help students who were going through such a difficult time.

Agnes Chavez:  Yes, that has led to really interesting developments for the STEMarts Lab, because I had developed an online curriculum tool back in 2012, but it wasn't used as much as it's being used now. And so, the online curriculum tool is where I put the content that the teachers use whether they’re participating in an art workshop or going to a festival to experience the art of the festival, there's always this online tool that has all the background information, right? About the artist and about the science behind the art and the engineering that goes into it. All of that content is always there. So, with COVID, this tool became really valuable! More valuable than it was before. And the other thing that happened is… through a personal story that happened to me…So, one thing about STEMarts workshops, and arts education in general, is that we can teach the same students over time.  I've been working with the same group of students from 4th grade through 8th grade. They were graduating this year.  And I've been bringing my programs to this school, “Projecting Particles”, the Lakota Cosmology project. Basically, it’s learning about the physics, particle physics through Projection Art project. And then of course, Covid hits. So, in response to the isolation that students were experiencing from the lockdown and the switch to online learning and with field trips being cancelled, we created BioSTEAM International, a virtual international exchange program, and it connected a classroom in New Mexico with a classroom in Portugal to collaborate on a sci-art installation that is then presented at local and international festivals. The goal is to encourage intercultural respect, connectivity to develop creative expression and scientific literacy as students collaborate on a sci-art installation called "Space Messengers." 

Jo Reed:  Okay. Explain the project “Space Messengers.” I’m really intrigued!

Agnes Chavez: "Space Messengers" is a large-scale projection where the messages and voices collected from the youth participants are live-mixed and projected along with their video silhouettes onto buildings to create an immersive and interactive experience for the audience. So it was created in partnership with long-time collaborator Markus Dorninger and his team of projection artists and along with a team of programmers and sound engineers. We designed a collaborative platform we call the Space Board where students shared ideas and their process drawings, which were actually created through the workshop, and the students co-wrote messages that communicated the science they learned and their thoughts and wishes for a sustainable interplanetary future, that was the goal of the workshop, and then these messages are going to be seen floating on the wall along with interactive video silhouettes that are generated from all the images and videos that are captured from the workshop. And then to enhance the experience an interactive soundtrack will respond to visual triggers filling the space with collected space and planetary sounds from the NASA Library as well as water and earth sounds, and the voice of the students will be interwoven to accentuate the visual of their floating space messages.

Jo Reed:  This happening virtually—but is it also happening in a geographical space? How does it work?

Agnes Chavez: So, when the projection launches in Oerias, Portugal, for the Festival Internacional de Ciência, we are coordinating a global virtual reality day in Taos County. So, on the same day, October 15th, while the projection is happening in Portugal in Taos we are coordinating participating schools to set up virtual reality stations and then we, our creative team, has created a virtual reality 3D simulation of the site in Portugal where we're going to simultaneously livestream the projection into the virtual reality platform. So the students here will be able to at the same time experience the "Space Messengers," and  the virtual reality will also be interactive, they can send those space messages which appear on the wall in Portugal as well as on their virtual wall. So we basically created a hybrid physical online experience so that the kids in both countries can experience the installation at the same time. The final "Space Messengers" installation is participatory, as people will walk through the courtyard site there are sensor cameras that are going to capture their silhouettes which are then also seen projected onto the walls but they're filled with the mosaic of all the student-generated content, and the live audience can also send their own messages which appear on the wall in real time during the event.

Jo Reed:  This seems wonderful and complicated and I wonder how much the students were involved in the panning of it, the implementation of it…

Agnes Chavez: So the whole concept and the "Space Messengers" installation was developed with the students so they were part of the whole process in all its iterations, and then what was most exciting is that the kids were meeting each other from different countries and they were doing this project together, so art was the process through which we learned and we created together.

Jo Reed:  I know the culmination of the project hasn’t happened yet—that’s in October. But I wonder what the response has been from the teachers and from the students!

Agnes Chavez:  It turned out to be like a winning formula. It turned out to be so successful that the teachers told me that the kids had been hiding in their bedrooms and not showing up for their Zoom calls, and they were always muted and their cameras were off, or you'd just see the top of their heads. And with this program, they just came out of their shells and really connected with each other and with the program. So, that was a real experiment that was in response to the problem that I was hearing from teachers that the kids were not engaged, that shifting to this online format was just not working. And my question to myself and to my team was, "How can we use our creativity, our digital tools to come up with another way or a more engaging way to reach them?" And of course, the messaging is always to develop empathy and to empower them. So, we're asking always that question as we design digital tools.

Jo Reed:  Sure. It seems that during this time when all of us can feel so much out of control with everything that's going on, that that combination of science and art makes a really powerful tool for students. Not just to perhaps be empowered themselves, but also to be able to kind of express their own uncertainty about things. And by doing that, own some control over them.

Agnes Chavez:  Yeah, we did notice that that happened through this project, the Space Messengers.  And they were learning about science and art, philosophy, Lakota Cosmology, all of these complex ideas, but always asking the question, "What are your thoughts and wishes for a sustainable interplanetary future?" And so, it very much stayed focused that, "This is your future. You know? And now everything that you're learning here is to help you to think about ways that we can-- that you can make this work for you! That how can you make it better? Always bringing it back to, "You are the youth leaders, you are the leaders of the future." So, we're now giving them all of this knowledge, and we're bringing it all together in an interdisciplinary way. And it seems to really reach them and make them feel empowered, make them, make them feel like they're valued. And that seems to make all the difference.

Jo Reed:  And of course, using the arts to both understand and to explain scientific knowledge is key.  

Agnes Chavez:  Right, that’s right. The model is that we use the arts, meaning New Media Arts, to understand the science and to communicate the science. So, the first part is through the workshop, or through the art learning, we actually learn about, learn from the scientists, and then it's communicated through some kind of SCIArt installation or experience at a festival or real-world event. So, that whole picture, how that all fits together, that's the STEMarts model that I've been developing over the years, and now with COVID has a whole new level of implementation with the virtual component.

Jo Reed: As you say, this particular project was developed during Covid. And I wonder what your plans are for carrying this work forward. I assume you’re going to continue to use as students are heading back into a classroom.

Agnes Chavez:  Yes, yes, yes. What's interesting is that I'm so excited about working with them. And I feel like we started something during COVID that is just continuing. And it is COVID responsive. You know, I didn't say, "Okay, I'm doing this temporarily and now I'm going back to the way it was." On the contrary. So, we're just continuing this project called” Space Messengers” which has all these components that I described, right, this methodology, and so now what happens is that those students who were part of that workshop, now they're waiting for the culmination, which was delayed because of COVID. It was supposed to happen April, now it’s happening in October. So, the kids in Portugal and the kids here have been waiting for this. And so, we're excited, because this project is going to come to completion, but also it's going to travel. So, now the Consulate of Guadalajara, Mexico wants to bring it to Mexico to a school there. So, in February and March of 2022, we're now doing it again with six more schools. So, everyone's very excited to see where, you know, to try out all these new tools and these new ways of learning and communicating.

Jo Reed:  An integrated arts curriculum—especially one like yours where you ‘re using art to learn about science sounds like it just opens up new worlds for students and also really gives them an outlet to express their own knowledge in ways that really work for them.  It’s giving them an outlet especially right now that they so badly need!

Agnes Chavez:  Well, not only is it that they need it, but what I hear from the students I they didn't even know it was possible! So, they're used to arts being in the arts class or like isolated within a particular subject area called Arts. But what they tell me is that they never knew it was possible to combine, you know, Science and all of these different things together with Art. So, it is a different experience when they see it coming together in an interdisciplinary way. So, it blows their minds. And it does open their minds, and it's what I hear from them, that it really opened their mind to what is possible.

Jo Reed:   Agnes, as we're transitioning back to schools, it seems that arts education is really uniquely positioned to be extraordinarily helpful to students as they're facing this anxiety and coming out of being in lockdown for a year.

Agnes Chavez: Yes. And because of the lockdown, but also in general, we are living in this really extraordinary time where science and technology can often overshadow the art, right. So the STEM or the science and technology and all the advancements are very important to learn and to communicate, to understand. Just to expand our own understanding of the universe and, you know, on earth and now in space. But I think with the arts, why the arts are so important and new media arts are so important is because this is a medium where we can really go deeper into what are the ethics behind the science and technology, what are the impacts of it and to raise awareness to the importance of these issues that are coming up. I feel like the goal of STEMArts Lab is to use the power of immersive art to inspire our youth but also our communities and to become just more informed global citizens, and to reimagine our humanity, because that's what the arts can do better than anything else, is to let you imagine and reimagine what we can be, you know, in light of what's going on in the world with climate change and all of these challenges that we face, how can we reimagine our humanity.

Jo Reed: And so it provides students not just with the place where they can explore their concerns, it also offers them a place where they can begin to think about what they can do next.

Agnes Chavez: Absolutely. They learn from the very beginning that that's why we're here is to design new solutions or to imagine alternative futures. So one of the things that I'm getting into now that I'm learning about and sharing with the students is the idea of futures thinking, that there's not just one future that's destined. Now we are creating the future of tomorrow and that they are a part of that building and a part of that imagining.

Jo Reed:  How STEMarts Lab develop curriculum that really speaks to the very diverse cultural backgrounds in Taos?

Agnes Chavez:  Well, that is kind of what created that STEMarts Lab. Because I've been in Taos for 35 years. I came here when I was 27. And the first thing you know when you become a member of the Taos community is that you live in a very multicultural community and New Mexico, in general, is a very poor state. And so, access to knowledge, to technology, just even the isolation of Taos compared to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, all these factors make a difference. They impact the ability to access. And so, you're always, as an artist, trying to find ways to overcome that, right? Or as a teacher. You know, how do we get our kids to have access? So, that really is what created a lot of the methodologies that I developed out of necessity, right? So, this has been my community for 35 years. There are some strategies that I use. So, for example, and it's out of trial-and-error, so when I first started, I would try like maybe after school programs, right? So, just to start there. One of the things that I came up against is that after school programs require, in most cases, that the parent bring the student. And so, then you have a barrier, is the parent working? Which parents are going to be able to bring their kids, right? So, if you have parents that are not able to because they're working all the time, then that student's not going to have access. So, then I started to work within the school classroom time period. And then I had to adapt the curriculum and align it with the standards and make it easy for the teacher. Because otherwise what happened is, "Oh, well, the teachers don't have time to do something extra! Because they have to teach their core curriculum." And that's when I eventually aligned the STEMarts programs to the standards. So, they're now aligned to the Next Generations Science standards, of course the National Core Art standards, and to the partnership with 21st Century P21 standards. So that makes it easier for the teacher. And slowly, I developed this thing called a STEMarts Curriculum Tool, which has all of the tools and resources that the teacher needs so that it's super, super easy for them to participate and make it part of their classroom curriculum.  So, I always make sure that my programs are coming to schools that do represent the communities that I serve. It’s more like core principles. So, I don't bring my program to privileged schools or schools where the kids already have access to all the latest technology and science. I bring it to schools that don't necessarily have that access.

Jo Reed:  You also have a commitment to turning students from being sort of passive recipients of media to being actual cultural producers of it. And again, after a year of lock-down, it strikes me as particularly important for students.

Agnes Chavez:  Right. And that is something that I bring into the STEMarts Lab program. So, the students have access to these technologies so that they can tell their own stories. For example, the current project, Space Messengers, they're actually sharing their messages that they want to send out to the world. And that doesn't have a lot of technology but it's still the same concept. They're telling their story. So, yeah, I would say that that is a product of our times, and it's one of the most exciting things that we have at our fingertips right now is that we really can allow our youth and our communities to really be contributors to the content that's on the web, or that's just out there.

Jo Reed:   You know, in listening to you, it seems to me that if students are involved in passive learning, asking them to do it via Zoom is the kiss of death. But when it becomes interactive, it can be in a classroom, it can be in Zoom, if it involves imagination and creativity, students become engaged. And especially when they can speak to what it is they see around them. And I'm thinking of your program BioSTEAM,  which very specifically speaks to 21st century challenges that kids face.

Agnes Chavez: Yeah. That's right. And BioSTEAM is a program that also was developed during COVID focusing on climate change and how do we get kids engaged in using arts to learn about climate change and now pandemic diseases or whatever is going on in the world. And how to use the arts to design with nature. So if you're using new technologies, it's not just about blindly using any technology and not understanding the ethics behind it or the environmental impact of the technology. So all of the STEMarts workshops address all those aspects of technology and science, not just sugar-coated, and that engages them because they can-- they want to think beyond just the surface.

Jo Reed:  We tend see art as really having the ability to heal. And I'm curious how mindful you are of that as we're approaching this new school year and the big transition that's coming for students?

Agnes Chavez:   Well, during COVID, we had to be attentive to that because there was a lot of depression and anxiety and all kinds of, you know, even suicide that was going on, so there had to be a lot of sensitivity to that. So what I do to address that is I have very, very close collaborative relationships with the teachers. I never pretend to come in and know it all; the contrary. The relationship that I have with the teachers is integral. I consider them collaborating partners.  We're the support. You know, we're there to support the schools and the teachers. And that's always been my approach and I think that's really important because I think sometimes if you just pop in and pop out, it just doesn't work. And they know it.  I'm committed year after year after year. And, sometimes I feel like something didn't work, then I go and talk to them about it and how do we make it better. So I'm just with my team, we're always looking for using the latest technologies and ways to do it better, right. How do we do it better so that we can be engaging our youth and our communities through this art.  

Jo Reed: You are an innovative, wonderful artist. How did you become interested in arts education and bringing this into the classroom?

Agnes Chavez: Yeah. I think I've always been equally interested in art and education. To me, how do I explain it? And they were never really separate for me. So because art has always been about a way to inspire people, right, to communicate ideas, to inform, right. And education is also about that, right? You're, it's, to me, it's like art and science and art and education, they're all one for me. And I've always been interested in sharing what it is I'm learning and sharing it with other people and that process of learning, the learning process is part of my art. So for example, I do a lot of research for my art. I go and do science residencies at laboratories like at CERN where I did a research day to learn about particle physics to inspire and inform the work. And then I developed the workshop called Projecting Particles. And I remember the first workshop I did and I said to the kids, "Okay, I'm learning about particle physics because I think it's very important to understand the universe through particle physics and we're all going to learn together," I tell them, you know. And that's kind of how I approach it. And I do that with the teachers as well, you know. I tell them, "I'm exploring something new and I'd like to share it with you." So I like this process. I consider it all integral. And I've always done that. It's like what I tell the kids: How can we design with nature and build a better world?

Jo Reed: That was Artist and educator Agnes Chavez—you can find out more about the work she does and check out curriculum tools at Agnes was also contributed an essay to the NEA’s Tech as Art report called How Artists Can Bridge the Digital Divide and Reimagine Humanity” you can find it at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed—stay safe and thanks for listening.

With the new school year upon us, this week we’re turning our attention to arts education. First, Ayanna Hudson, director of Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts (and currently acting deputy chairman of Programs and Partnerships), reminds us of the singular role the arts and arts education can play as students return to the classroom. Hudson emphasizes that involvement in the arts not only engages and empowers students, it can also support the social and emotional needs of students during this critical transition and provide a much-needed vehicle for self-expression. Then we explore an example of arts education and its ability to transform students with new media artist and educator Agnes Chavez. Chavez is the founder of STEMarts Lab, which uses the arts to develop science and math skills.  Based in Taos, New Mexico, the artists at STEMarts Lab design and create light and sound installations and then build curriculum tools around the art. STEMarts Lab also bring artists into the classroom to work with teachers and provide hands-on workshops both in person or virtually.  During the pandemic and virtual classrooms, Chavez responded “to the problem that I was hearing from teachers that the kids were not engaged, that shifting to this online format was just not working. And my question to myself and to my team was, 'How can we use our creativity, our digital tools to come up a more engaging way to reach them?'"  In answer, Chavez created a virtual international exchange program that connected a classroom in Taos, New Mexico, with a classroom in Portugal in which the students collaborated on an art installation that had real world and virtual applications. Space Messengers turned out to be a winning formula, engaging students and exciting teachers. As one teacher wrote, “The temptation of creating art and learning some fascinating science from experts around the world, while working with kids from another country, has proven magical for the COVID-battered students…” In this podcast, Chavez tells us about the program, how learning science through art impacts students’ ways of thinking, and the program’s continuing evolution.

Additional Information

National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Education

Arts Education Partnership

“Supporting Student Wellness Through the Arts”

“How Artists Can Bridge the Digital Divide and Reimagine Humanity” by Agnes Chavez