Gathering STEAM: 10 minutes with Roots of American Music’s Sheela Das

Roots of American Music inspires people of all ages through traditional American music and culture by offering residencies, teacher workshops, assemblies, and free public performances in greater Cleveland.

We recently spoke with ROAM's associate director Sheela Das, lead teaching artist of the program “It IS Rocket Science,” in several Cleveland-area schools. ROAM receives funding from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture through its General Operating Support program.

September 13, 2012

What is “It IS Rocket Science,” and how did the program come about?
Our program “It IS Rocket Science,” part of ROAM’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) program, takes students through a journey of science technology, engineering and math careers with scientists who are also performing musicians. It teaches them important science topics through original instructional songs built around the State of Ohio’s science and technology curriculum by ROAM teaching artists. We created the program to address low student achievement in science throughout the county by using music to enhance student learning and performance. Generous support from the Gund Foundation allowed us to interview subject matter experts in science to create this program.
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Where have you taught the program, and where are you planning to teach it this year?
Last school year, ROAM conducted this program at Max Hayes high school, Hannah Gibbons Elementary School and Mary B. Martin Elementary school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. This fall, we’re serving the entire 7th grade student population at Heritage Middle School in the City of East Cleveland with this program.

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How did you develop STEAM, and how do you adapt it to each particular classroom?
Each segment was tailored by grade level and according to teacher feedback and requests on aspects of the science curriculum that prove to be difficult for students. Lessons include topics such as electrical circuits, genetic traits, the rock cycle, soil, scientific method, recycling, and the laws of motion. Songs typically embody the common misperceptions found at the end of each teaching strand.

What takes place during a typical class?
Our classes begin with an opening call-and-response to ready the students for the introductory kick-off music. Two teaching artists ask students questions about the curriculum to be presented to assess learning. A scientist (often an actual rocket scientist!) will give a presentation on one aspect of the curriculum. Artists will then present a song and lyrics to students that relate this content and other topics. Students join in the song and then are asked questions whose answers are found in the lyrics. After discussion, the students are asked to write another verse to the song, based on the content they learned that day. All perform the song together. A new song is introduced at the close of the class that might be used in a new way the following day – with new content-driven lyrics! Students love to sing and learn the songs.

How do students react to the STEAM classes?
Students love the original music and songs presented and remember the songs long after we are finished. Musical interludes between verses are usually lively and the students start dancing around to them. They love the rap and song writing, as well as their final performance with the band.

Can you tell us a story about something unexpected that happened as a result of one of your programs?
When we returned to the school four months later to get photos of the class, the minute we stepped into the classroom the students started doing the scientific method rap. The teacher said please pay attention. They said we are, pointing to the artists. Even after the entire summer had passed, the class was still enthusiastic about the rap. The rap takes them through the steps of the scientific method and it was fantastic and rewarding to see they still knew the song.

What’s the importance of curriculum-linked arts education, and what impact does it have on students?
Almost anything can be taught using music – it creates an automatic connection between the people in the room, the teacher and students, and it changes the dynamic of the learning environment. It provides opportunities for people to share, brings down communication barriers, and puts a new, interactive face on the subject matter. When students write their own songs about curriculum, they begin to own it, internalize it – and their post tests demonstrate that they walk away understanding way more than they started with.

What does funding from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture allow Roots of American Music to do that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do?
We could never have taken the time to develop such an in depth and responsive program without the operating support funding from CAC. They provide resources to nonprofit arts and cultural organizations to help us run our businesses better, more effectively, and ultimately allow us to be in closer touch with the communities we serve. Our STEAM program is perfect example of that.
Roots of American Music

Listen to I Will Be All I Can Be, a song about careers in science written by local students to the tune of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Recorded with Brian Straw, Sheela Das and Kevin Richards of ROAM.