Visitors check out one of the exhibits at the Association of Art Museum Directors Opening at the U.S. Department of Education. (U.S. Department of Education)

Lauren Puttock loves math, but it was in art class where the concept of exponents really sunk in.

She and other Kenmore Middle School students listened as teacher Jeff Wilson and math coach Corinne Magee mixed equations with lessons on surrealist Man Ray, who is famous for integrating math into his work. The students then translated what they learned into multi-tiered hanger sculptures, each successive tier featuring an increasing number of hangers based on escalating exponents — numbers multiplied by themselves.

“I think more graphically,” said Lauren, who is sixth grade at the Arlington school. “Art can really help me learn.”

A miniature version of the sculpture was featured last week at the U.S. Department of Education, where educators and museum directors gathered to highlight how museums can help schools integrate art into their classrooms. Lauren, another Arlington student and a high schooler from Staten Island who participates in a weekend arts program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were on hand for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to open the exhibit.

The exhibition at the Association of Art Museum Directors at the U.S. Department of Education. (U.S. Department of Education)

The idea of the partnerships is not just to introduce students to art through one-time field trips but to integrate art into lessons beyond art class. And in the past decade, arts education has transcended its longtime status as a stand-alone subject where students learn to draw or paint.

“It’s not just a separate set of skills,” said Jackye Zimmermann, director of the student art exhibition for the Education Department. “It’s an integrated set of skills that teaches you about your culture and your history ... it’s a recognition that everything around you is a combination of the arts and some form of math, technology and engineering.”

The student exhibition on the ground floor of the Education Department building in D.C. features works from dozens of students whose teachers partnered with the nation’s museums, large and small.

The Denver Art Museum helped high schoolers create art based on social justice themes from police brutality to homeless veterans.

Anne Henderson of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville said the museum helped a nearby high school create a campaign on pedestrian safety — using Banksy-inspired street art — after one of their own classmates was killed crossing the street.

Meagan Estep of the Phillips Collection, who worked with Kenmore Middle School to create lessons based around exhibitions at her museum, said she’s also worked with a preschool teacher to create a lesson about ecology and habitats based around a Georgia O’Keefe painting, Ranchos Church, of an austere church in the desert.

“We know that art makes students learn better,” Estep said. “It’s not just about looking and thinking about it as a work of art on its own. How can we apply that in a science lesson?”

Zimmermann said museums have made a new push to incorporate art into a broad variety of school subjects because educators believe it’s better to blend arts across the spectrum, giving students multiple ways to approach academic ideas.

At Kenmore Middle, Shauna Dyer, the coordinator of arts and communications technology focus, helped build three separate lessons around a Man Ray exhibit at the Phillips Collection. One played off the artist’s process of photographing mathematical models and then creating a painting based on the photographs. Instead, students invented superheroes, built them using a three-dimensional printer, photographed them and then set them against landscapes created in Photoshop.

Integrated lessons can be challenging. Wilson, the art teacher, said it can sometimes feel forced. Teaching students about Man Ray, a surrealist and Dadaist whose work some adults struggle to grasp, was not easy.

Dyer said her main job is to find opportunities for arts integration, but she knows of few schools with a staff member dedicated to that purpose. It has allowed her to do regular collaborations with the Phillips Collection, creating lesson plans and coordinating visits with the D.C. museum. Dyer said the benefits are apparent.

“It helps us see whether kids have a good understanding of the subject,” she said.

And the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities has tied investment in arts education to gains in test scores for math and reading. Its Turnaround Arts program gave eight struggling schools across the country — including Savoy Elementary in D.C. — resources to invest in high-quality arts education. A report released in January showed that all eight schools saw gains in either reading or math.

The student art exhibit at the Education Department is open for scheduled visits through the end of June. To make an appointment, e-mail Jackye Zimmermann at

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jackye Zimmermann’s e-mail address. The story has been updated.