RICHLAND -- The four future teachers in Yichien Cooper's class created paintings, learned to play recorders and put together movies this semester at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
So it came as no surprise that their instructor had them dance with ribbons and a Southeast Asian lion mask in the final class of the semester.
"The first fundamental thing you need to learn as a teacher is to not be afraid to lose face," said Cooper, an adjunct professor, as she pulled out the mask and performed a demonstrative dance, bobbing and twisting her head.
Technology and a drive to prepare K-12 students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields have dominated education in recent years.
But the arts are still important, educators say.
Future teachers at WSU Tri-Cities are required to take Cooper's course.
That's because art still plays a critical role in not only communicating information to students but also inspiring them and making them better at whatever job they aspire to, educators said.
"You want well-rounded students, regardless of the grade," said Maria Moscatelli, who arranges student teacher placements for the College of Education at the Richland campus.
Incorporating the arts
None of Cooper's current students plans to go into art education. Three of the four students expect to teach math. Two also are seeking a special education endorsement.
The students' recent movie assignment required them to explore the concept of creativity by creating a video. The results were a documentary about a local photographer, a traditionally animated short film exploring art history and a stop-motion animation piece, using pipe cleaner figures and backdrops made of tissue and construction paper, talking about Amelia Earhart.
Cooper is friendly and encouraging of her students' efforts. At the same time, she wants them out of their comfort zones and thinking outside the subject they plan to teach, she said. Here, students will frequently be pressed for time and resources to design their lessons and classroom projects once on their own.
"For me, I feel like I'll probably need (Cooper's) class," said senior Shantia Miller of West Richland, who's studying to teach special education.
Cooper, a painter in her own right, has taught the Art in Education class at the Richland campus since 2008. Teachers knowing about art and how to use it in the classroom are critical, as it affects everything from how a grade school teacher decorates her classroom, to how a middle school teacher plans a skit to teach about U.S. history.
If a teacher can incorporate art into lessons in math, science or language arts, it opens up a whole new way for students to grasp the material. Art also teaches the value of confidence and taking risks.
"For some children, art is the only way to communicate, to survive and to link to the world," Cooper said.
Art has its place
Cooper said the lessons she teaches are increasingly critical as art education gets less attention in school district budgets.
Some schools are already dropping art classes in lower grades and she expects that trend to continue. Teachers are resorting to artistic activities that are more likely to inspire imitation rather than creativity because there's pressure to teach more core subjects, such as reading and math.
Other educators aren't so sure that art is on its way out of schools, though. Moscatelli, who previously taught at the high school level, said she can't imagine art being pulled out of the K-12 curriculum and that "people still love the arts."
Scientific and technical fields have enjoyed some extra attention at the expense of art in the past, but the two are beginning to intertwine and support each other, much as they did during the Renaissance, said Doug Gast, an associate professor of fine arts and director of the Richland campus' digital technology and culture program.
"Just like science, art teaches a new way to see the world," he said. "It's not just a painting on the wall."
But that's why Moscatelli said she wants the student teachers she places to have taken Cooper's course.
"I want my student teacher to have art tools," she said. "How do you make (learning) appealing? How do you make it aesthetic?"
On being 'MacGyver'
Students aren't always receptive to taking Cooper's course. She said she had a particularly defiant group not long after starting at WSU Tri-Cities.
"They didn't think it necessary for what they would teach," she said.
She assigned a genealogy project so the students could study the concept of diversity. One of those defiant students learned through that project that he wasn't just white, but had Native American ancestors. He told Cooper that information gave him a better understanding of who he was and to explore it.
"That was back in 2009, and I still think about it," she said.
This semester's students weren't resistant. Most of them didn't have any experience with art outside of their time as grade school students. They understand why it will be a valuable skill set to have when they have their own classrooms, especially if they teach something connected to STEM careers.
"(Employers) want you to be a MacGyver," said senior Chadrick Mansfield of Kennewick, who plans to be a math or science teacher. "Creativity is what drives these people."
The dancing demonstration on the last day of class ended up having a hook: the students are going to have to learn an ethnic dance and then teach it to everyone in the class. A few looked a little anxious, especially when they learned they can't choose the culture, but that Cooper will assign one.
Cooper, though, is confident in their ability.
"You need to be able to respond quickly," she told the class. "I'm pushing you to do something you normally wouldn't do."