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Graduate Student Invited to Present Research on Alternative Education at National Conference

Priscilla Stewart will present her research on place- and ecology-based education at the National Art Education Association’s National Convention, the premier conference for K12 art educators and university researchers

On March 22, Art Education graduate student and middle school teacher Priscilla Stewart will present her thesis research on place-based education at the National Art Education Association’s (NAEA) annual conference in Seattle.

The NAEA National Convention is the preeminent conference for K12 art educators and university researchers in the world. To apply, Stewart completed a detailed application that described her research, which was reviewed by the higher education research group. According to Stewart’s graduate advisor and chair of her thesis committee, Professor Mark Graham, “It is quite competitive to make a presentation at this conference. Even university faculty often get juried out.”  

Stewart’s thesis explores the possibilities of an art curriculum based on community, ecology and outdoor experiences. She wants to know how such a curriculum would influence students’ attitudes toward learning, and the quality and characteristics of art they make.

While most teacher researchers study their own classrooms, Stewart’s background in art and environmental activism led her to design a Mountain Art School to study her research question. Together, Stewart and Graham—who has researched and written extensively on place-based and ecology-based education—created the curriculum for the week-long summer school, which included field trips to the Spiral Jetty, Red Butte Garden, Utah State Capitol, Rio Tinto Kennecott Mine, Natural History Museum, and hiking in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.

At other times during the week, the students learned from speakers Lynda Sperry, an environmental biologist who discussed climate change, and Claire Taylor, an artist with a background in environmental humanities. Each day the students participated in workshops and spent quiet time outside drawing.

“When you make a drawing of a place you sit down, think, kind of meditate and take your time to experience the things around you,” Stewart said. The Mountain Art School was inspired by Stewart’s experience teaching art at Summit Academy in Draper, where she has noticed that kids spend significantly more time indoors than she did growing up. They use their free time on phones, video games, and organized sports rather than playing creatively outside. To Stewart, an environmentalist with a love for the outdoors, this observation is concerning. As people become more and more detached from nature, they have little motivation to protect the earth.

With Graham’s help, Stewart designed a research methodology to gauge the Mountain Art School’s impact on participants by evaluating their reactions, reflections, attitudes and artwork. As students spend more time outdoors Stewart expects they will become more engaged citizens who care about improving the environmental and social quality in their communities. Stewart plans to share some of her results at the National Art Education Association conference later this month, as well as ideas for how teachers can incorporate place-based education principles in a typical classroom setting. Some of her suggestions include taking students outside more often, going on field trips, presenting on artists who use environment as a theme in their work, planting a school garden, and discussing state and local issues.

“I think you should teach art students about Picasso, but I also think you should get them thinking about issues of relevance to the world they live in,” Stewart said.   

The Mountain Art School was made possible by a Graduate Research Fellowship Grant from the university and Dr. Graham’s mentorship. Of Graham, Stewart said, “He has pushed me to take risks with my research, to apply for grants and to present at conferences. He is an inspirational, helpful, wise and supportive teacher. Exactly the teacher I hope I can become someday.