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Through art, Extension partnership helps rural kids, communities explore science, animal health

A line of teachers, kids, and youth holding newly made posters.
Children in Buena, Wash., create art that introduces them to concepts in science, medicine and health this fall, as part of WSU’s Health-sciences Education through Arts-based Learning partnership, or HEAL (Photo by Kaitlyn Luedke).


Small, rural Washington communities often lack the resources to launch young people into careers in science and technology that can help solve local challenges in health and agriculture.

This fall, Extension researchers are bridging that gap, helping children in agricultural communities encounter ideas in STEMM — science, technology, engineering, math and medicine — through art, while building a better understanding at all ages of devastating diseases that affect people and livestock.

A standing teacher at left overlooks a student creating artwork at a table.
Alison White, 4-H Youth Development Regional Specialist for Yakima and Kittitas Extension, watches as an afterschool pupil in Buena, Wash., works on an afterschool HEAL project (Photo by Kaitlyn Luedke).

Their project, called Health-sciences Education through Arts-based Learning, or HEAL, launched thanks to a new five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Led by Molly Kelton and Jeb Owen, researchers in the College of Education and Department of Entomology, respectively, Extension faculty and 4-H teens are helping design, deliver, and evaluate weekly after-school courses for children in grades 3-5. They share lessons on science and zoonotic disease — illnesses that spread from animals to people — via artistic concepts like cartography, illustration, photography, and info-graphics.

Other key university contributors to HEAL include Patricia Butterfield, professor and Associate Dean of Research at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, and Robert Danielson, assistant professor in the College of Education.

Link to the community
Extension is WSU’s link with communities statewide, and HEAL’s pilot project begins in two small, rural communities in Yakima County, partnering with the Buena Library and Mabton’s Catholic Charities Housing.

“Children in tiny communities like Buena and Mabton don’t have a local science center or robotics club,” said Gina Ord, Director of Yakima County Extension. “Our classes let kids explore science in a creative, interactive way that’s approachable across generations and language barriers.”

“Careers in science and biomedicine can seem unattainable for low-income or minority children in rural areas,” added Alison White, 4-H Youth Development Regional Specialist for Yakima and Kittitas Extension. “Our long-term goal is to increase representation of underrepresented communities in careers like virology, entomology and ecology. By fostering an early interest in STEMM and biomedical careers, HEAL programs are poised to change lives, communities, and biomedical industries.”

Initial STEMM art lessons focus on West Nile Virus, which is transmitted by mosquitos, infecting poultry and other birds. West Nile has been reported in Yakima County, and can cause serious, even fatal, illness in people and horses.

A circle of children, teens and adults work on art together, outdoors.
Learning about science and art concepts, youth in Buena, Wash., take part in an outdoor exercise led by Extension faculty and 4-H youth. HEAL helps communities build capacity to teach lessons in STEMM through art (Photo by Kaitlyn Luedke).

Art as a bridge
For many children in rural communities, English is a second language and Spanish is spoken in the home. AnaMaria Martinez, assistant professor in Human Development with Franklin County Extension, will ensure HEAL is culturally adapted and relevant for Hispanic families.

Art bridges the language divide, and children will share their discoveries with family at home and at art shows, sharing ideas with the wider community. Extension faculty are training local teachers, librarians and volunteers to offer art and STEMM, allowing enrichment to continue even after the grant ends.

White leads the local Youth Advocates for Health program, or YA4-H!, mentoring teen teachers who will support HEAL after-school courses, conducting mini-science experiments, teaching art techniques and facilitating discussions of ecology, biology, and communication through art. Above all, they are fostering curiosity and interest in science and research.

“We’re not only helping empower youth to embrace STEMM careers, we’re also spreading knowledge about how to manage disease like West Nile,” Ord said. “Families and kids are realizing that they can be scientists. They can change their communities to make them healthier places for people and animals.”

This project was made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award (Grant Number 1R25GM129814-01) from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

• Learn more about the HEAL project here.