Infusing Arts into STEM Areas to Improve Student Learning: the STEAM Learning Network

Several years ago, Duval Elementary made a name for itself when, in the span of only a year, it rose from an F to an A in state-wide standardized assessment scores for its students, representing the largest learning gains in the entire state of Florida.  That was no small feat for a school with limited resources located in one of the poorest areas on the east side of Gainesville, Florida. 

Dr. Donald Pemberton, director of the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning, described how Duval continues to achieve success by “infusing the arts into math and science and technology to improve student learning.” 

The project was funded by the Smallwood Foundation and the addition of an Artist in Residence program was funded by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs’ Culture Builds Florida program. As a result, Duval students studying the foundations of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (the so-called STEM areas) were empowered by the infusion of Arts into their classrooms. The STEAM project at Duval was born.

The epicenter of STEAM at Duval is the new Super Classroom Theatre, a 21st century education environment designed by Digital Worlds Institute Director James Oliverio and brought to fruition under Project Manager Chris Tassin.  The room has video-conferencing capabilities that give students access to the best learning from around the world, in addition to a number of technological features usually found only in university-level research and production facilities.

Duval students subsequently starred in an original work of musical theatre designed by Oliverio called  “East Side Story” (ESS).  In addition to original music that helps tell the story of the Duval community’s African American heritage, ESS includes songs and skits teachers use to help students learn the course materials in math and science.  Excerpts from “East Side Story” were then combined into a live performance that the school debuted in a Miami conference for the Kellogg Foundation on March 26, 2009.

When asked about the Miami performance, Anika Johnson, a fourth-grade dancer at Duval, said, “I liked going to Miami because I like people thinking I was good.”

Good is an understatement.  The performance received multiple standing ovations and left many in tears.  Dr. Pemberton, who introduced ESS to the audience, said, “It was a performance that made a very strong point about the importance of culture in the lives of children and bringing (the) culture into the classroom to improve learning.  It was very, very moving.”

So moving, in fact, that one of the Miami conference attendees was so impressed that she wanted to show the performance at an upcoming international conference in Hawaii the following week.  Professor Oliverio arranged for a real-time exchange and simultaneous screening of the Miami premiere video between the Hawaii conference and Digital Worlds Institute studios.  The students from Duval were invited to this live collaboration and were able to see the entirety of their Miami performance for the first time onscreen at Digital Worlds.

Daniel Flores, an artist-in-residence at Duval and the theatrical director of “East Side Story,” said that watching their performance and hearing the positive feedback they’ve received has changed the children’s view of themselves and their school.

Mr. Flores said, “Most of them came to the realization when they got back (from Miami) that they were more important, that people really cared and that what they were doing made people think about them.”  And seeing the reaction their teachers garnered made the kids “more appreciative” of the effort they put into teaching them. 

The success and approval from the Miami and Hawaii conferences has picked up momentum, resulting in several more requests for Duval to perform their “East Side Story” at more than half a dozen locations across the state of Florida Dr. Pemberton says the school will have an ongoing impact because it serves as an inspirational case study of a school in trouble that was able to improve and help their children become successful.

He said, “The Duval performance (and the lessons contained within that performance) are critical for providing a real demonstration of what’s possible.  It’s just a powerful story.” - Klara Cu, writer

About the Teacher

In 2003, Duval Elementary School in Gainesville failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The F grade prompted longtime teacher Gloria Merriex to reevaluate and revamp her methods. Through hip-hop, dance, choir-like chanting and other unconventional innovations, Gloria led her students and colleagues to the academic Promised Land.

After just one year, Duval leapt from an F to an A on the FCAT. University of Florida professors and doctoral students began studying Gloria’s techniques, which also included flipping her annual lesson plan and teaching the most difficult concepts first.

When Duval failed the FCAT, Gloria experienced a life-altering epiphany: She realized she must become a different teacher. Her students’ achievements, which included going on to magnet middle-schools and, in many cases, college, provided all the proof she needed that her unorthodox methods worked. Nonetheless, research shows that her techniques trounce traditional teaching. For instance, scholars recently learned that discussing several concepts in one lesson engages young minds at the most productive level. Seeing the evidence, policymakers, principals and professors around the country use Gloria as a model for educational reform.

Gloria's Hip Hop Math

The UF Lastinger Center for Learning and Digital Worlds Institute produced the DVD / Teacher Materials album "Gloria's Hip Hop Math" as a means of giving teachers and students a step-by-step example of how to infuse the arts into the math classroom. The STEAM Team can be seen in a number of videos illustrating how math concepts can be embodied and reinforced through music and movement. Students can then expand and demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter by creating their own songs and movement patterns.


Building on the initial success of Gloria's work at Duval, the UF Digital Worlds Institute organized, produced and promoted the concept of "The STEAM TEAM". This concept (bolstered by the publication of the DVD / Teacher Materials album "Gloria's Hip Hop Math") led to some amazing performances at the University of Florida (UF) and across the entire State. Following initial performances in Miami and Jacksonville by the Duval STEAM Team, a new group consisting of students from both Duval and PK Yonge School performed at the UF School of Theatre and Dance and brought the house down.

The STEAM Team concept is scalable and, using the DVDs and instructional materials in the Gloria's Hip Hop Math album, teachers and students can create their own STEAM Team to increase learning outcomes in their own communities.