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Student connects art, sustainability through experiential learning

Onlookers observe young students interpreting art collage.
May 14, 2013

Omaya Ahmad points her camera over the heads of spectators to capture a photograph of the action. Two seventh-grade students are interpreting an art collage on exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The girls relate the collage to their understanding of sustainable consumption, describing the waste one man creates in his lifetime and the many people influenced or affected by his choices. This presentation – and 16 others like it – was the culminating showcase of Ahmad’s year-long fellowship in the social studies department at Greenway Middle School.

Giving a presentation in front of dozens of strangers is a memorable experience. It’s the kind of experience that cements a lesson in one’s memory, perhaps for a lifetime.

But was this an art lesson, a sustainability lesson, or a social studies lesson? The answer: all three.

Serendipitous connections

Ahmad is a fellow with Arizona State University’s Sustainability Science for Sustainable Schools program, and the goal of her fellowship is to integrate sustainability into her assigned school’s curriculum and community partnerships.

Ahmad has worked since the fall with the head of the honors core social studies department at Greenway Middle School. She’s developed and taught lessons on environmental sustainability for seventh-grade students and societal sustainability for eight-grade students.

Greenway, meanwhile, is piloting a new partnership with Phoenix Art Museum and the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The partnership is designed to bring together art venues with classroom learning.

And so, Ahmad and her partner teacher made the most of the two programs, using the museum partnership as a way to reinforce their sustainability lessons, and using the sustainability lessons as a way to reinforce what they’d taught students as part of the museum partnership.

Memorable experiences

In addition to the group presentations at Phoenix Art Museum, relating works of art to lessons on sustainability, Greenway students learned about sustainability through other experiences.

In March, the students visited the site of the Gila River World War II internment camp. The site, located 50 miles southeast of Phoenix, once housed more than 13,000 Japanese Americans forced into captivity after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The students learned from camp survivors Harry Yasumoto and Richard Matshi, who shared their experiences. While there, the students cleaned trash from the Butte Camp Memorial site. Japanese-born artist Ken Koshio will create a mural from the collected items.

And, similar to the group presentations on existing works of art, the students presented sustainability lessons through artwork they’d created. In April, the students presented shadow puppet shows at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The puppets and shadow boxes were created as in-class projects.  

“I wanted to do my fellowship in the Paradise Valley Unified School District because I graduated from a school in that district,” says Ahmad. “They matched me to Greenway, because of the opportunities with the honors core there. It was such a great match. It was gratifying to watch the students learn, and I learned a lot, too.”

Ahmad is a doctoral student in the School of Sustainability at ASU. Upon graduation, she hopes to use her sustainable development knowledge at a position within government or a large international organization like the United Nations.