Sarah Jean Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of teacher education, will use an NEA research grant to study the effect of out-of-school arts programs on learning among children and families of Mexican descent. | Photos courtesy UTEP

NEA funds UTEP Study on how Arts affect Learning

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded The University of Texas at El Paso’s Sarah Jean Johnson, Ph.D., a grant to study how teaching and learning practices in community arts programs affect Latinx children and their families.

Johnson, an assistant professor of teacher education, is the principal investigator behind “Bodies and Minds in Motion: Cultural Contexts for Learning in Community Arts Programs.” The NEA presented her with a two-year, $35,000 grant that UTEP will match. The project started in January 2021.

The educator and her research team will work with five partner organizations – Actor Space, Creative Kids, Ballet Folklórico of El Paso, Insights El Paso Science Center Inc. and Institute for Improvisation and Social Action (ImprovISA) – to watch and document how children ages 4 to 12 perform within the creative scenarios, and how their efforts are nurtured by peers, teachers and available arts resources. Additionally, the team will interview the children and their families to understand how they respond culturally to these practices.

Johnson said she believes her investigation will show how the creation of art involves emotions, complex thinking and perceptions of beauty. These activities could be important to the way children learn and how they benefit from these experiences.

The UTEP professor said she expects close observations of student participation in out-of-school art programs, which many communities lack, will reveal cognitive potential among participants of Mexican descent that are missed sometimes in school settings where they may not deeply interact with others and/or diverse arts materials.

“We believe our project will help provide models of teaching practices that are effective for this population of students that can have complex educational needs due to being second-language learners, having an undocumented status, or experiencing other challenges related to poverty,” Johnson said. “Our hope is that revealing what is possible for these children and youth in rich educational settings will motivate educators and policy makers to improve access to arts education.”

Andrea Gates-Ingle, executive director and co-founder of Creative Kids, said that she agreed to be part of this project to show a wider audience the positive social and emotional effects the creative process has on children, their families and their academic progress.

Gates-Ingle, who earned her bachelor’s degree in special education from UTEP in 1999, has known Johnson professionally for more than two years. The professor has been a frequent observer of how children work within the Creative Kids’ arts programs. Researchers will focus on Project ABLE (Art Brokers Learning Experiences) for children in nearby Fabens, Texas; Project AIM (Arts in Motion) for pediatric oncology patients; and the Resiliency Art Program for families that were inside Walmart during the mass shooting on Aug. 3, 2019.

“While we see it every day in working with the children and youth that we serve, having this documented and shared with a larger audience in the academic and policy-making fields by a trusted higher education research institute will help us to make the case that the arts are a viable and relevant tool,” said Gates-Ingle, who was honored as a UTEP Distinguished Alumna in 2019.

The project’s co-PIs are María Teresa de la Piedra, Ph.D., associate dean of graduate studies and research in the College of Education and professor of teacher education, and Nathaniel Robinson, lecturer and assistant vice president in UTEP’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. She also will employ two graduate research assistants.

Johnson said she is grateful to the NEA for the award, which coincides with the 10th anniversary of the NEA Research Grants in the Arts Program. She said she hopes that her arts research will advance theories of learning that emphasize the role of social processes, language and interaction in human development.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support this project from The University of Texas at El Paso among others that, in a very challenging year, will investigate the value and impact of the arts,” said Sunil Iyengar, NEA director of research and analysis.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications