Friday, July 11, 2014

STEAM adds writing component to institute

The newest component of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Institute, essay writing, is challenging the participants to hone their creative skills in a fresh, new way.

Halfway through the two-week "botanical immersion" hosted by OneTree Alaska, attendees are writing about their specific area of research.
Writer Frank Soos, left, discusses techniques with STEAMer Todd Groat of North Pole.

"We are synthesizing information and turning it into naturalist essays," said Hannah Hill. "Mine is slightly poetic but fact-based."

Frank Soos, who is teaching the writing sessions, is the author of:
Double Moon: Constructions and Conversations (with Margo Klass)
Under Northern Lights: Writers and Artists on the Alaskan Landscape (co-edited with Kes Wooodward)
Bamboo Fly Rod Suite
Unified Field Theory
Early Yet
Educated at Davidson College, he received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1997.

Soos is leading classroom sessions for STEAM and visiting field sites to encourage students to view their areas of study with a new eye.

"Texting is not the same as writing," Soos said.

The way he learned about teaching writing was by observing an art teacher. That particular professor told the students to draw whatever they wanted. Encouraging the students to be bold and honest, he said, "No naive observer, no naive writer.

"Think of all the books stacked in your life from "Cat in the Hat" to "Anna Karenina." You can't strip them from your head. Start by asking, what are my questions?"

The STEAM attendees' one constraint is their hoop (a circled area in the forest where their entire study is based). 

Soos encouraged the crew, mostly teachers and students, to write about the plants in their hoop, the interconnectedness, competition, invasive species,  habitat, cycles of nature. "Capture your idea in whatever form it takes," he said. "Don't imagine sitting down and the essay comes streaming out of your pen. Grant yourself permission to have a lot of messiness."

When starting to write the essay he advised forgetting the audience and just explore. "Throw everything that seems pertinent in there. Let the ideas all fall toward each other to the center of gravity and you will see what belongs. Some good ideas may get pushed away to somewhere else."

The beginning and end are crucial places. "You can't do this wrong but you can make your draft better by sharpening the focus."

Mysteries and confusion will have to be dealt with. "When you begin writing an essay you don't know where it's going; it can be an almost bottomless pit. You can close the essay and still have questions.

"Every piece of writing is a failed experiment."

Soos said it's important for teachers to write because they are modeling the behavior for their students. "We need complex thought, which we are losing in our nation," he said. "These are skills you want your students to learn. Writing is a use it or lose it proposition. Practice your skill. Learn how to turn information into something meaningful."

"The writing is a wonderful parallel to our art and science projects," said Karen Stomberg, one of the institute's instructors.

The STEAM participants are learning biology, drawing and writing, all based on observations of the boreal forest. This is the second institute; the first was held in 2012.

Further reading:

STEAM Institute takes botanical immersion to new levels, SNRE Science and News, July 7, 2014, by Nancy Tarnai

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