Originally published November 21, 2014
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
A vibrant graphic arts lecturer, Claudia Saldaña Corral reveled in cultivating creativity within her students at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, but her decision to volunteer at a nearby community center brought her in contact with a special group that altered her career path.
Saldaña met children with special needs at the Villa Integra center and tried to develop projects to engage participants who had autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The young instructor, who already had an undergraduate degree in graphic arts and a Master of Business Administration with a specialty in marketing, was intrigued by how their minds and spirits came alive through art.
The first-generation college student began to develop her own strategies to teach those students, but she lacked the time and expertise to develop new ideas. After some soul-searching and encouragement from her academic peers, the Juárez native applied for The University of Texas at El Paso’s Teaching, Learning and Culture (TLC) doctoral program. She was accepted in 2012 and began her research that combined her interests in art, education and working with children with disabilities.
Saldaña and her research partner, Diana Pineda, a fellow UTEP TLC doctoral student, presented their qualitative findings earlier this semester at an international conference in Germany focused on art and education.
“It was interesting and gratifying to compare data with other researchers interested in the same topic,” Saldaña said. “We got to share what we knew and find out what’s the new useful tool in their countries to educate children with and without disabilities. It seems music is becoming more important.”
Last summer, UTEP’s Institutional Review Board agreed to fund her research. She volunteered at the Paso Del Norte Children’s Development Center, 1101 E. Schuster Ave., for two months during the center’s summer camp and was able to work with about 10 children ages 4-12 that included some with disabilities.
After a period where Saldaña observed how different stimuli impacted the student’s cognitive skills, she began to introduce more art projects to their day. On one occasion, she asked them to use paints and brushes to illustrate their favorite superhero. The next day she asked them why they selected their hero and their feelings about that character. The biggest response came from a usually quiet child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who excitedly lifted his arms in triumph as he shared his thoughts about his hero.
The College of Education research assistant also interviewed the center’s six teachers about their perceptions of art and how they could increase their use of art to engage children.
Bea Vargas, the center’s child care director, said the center welcomed the doctoral student’s input because it benefitted the campers, who enjoyed the fun activities.
“The children were excited to see what she brought,” Vargas said. “They responded well to her.”
When it was time to analyze the data, Saldaña reached out to Pineda, a native of Colombia and a senior researcher who specializes in language assessment. They were excited to participate in the International Perspectives of Research in Arts Education workshop in September in Düsseldorf, Germany, and were eager to share with their UTEP classmates what they learned from their international peers.
The German Ministry of Education and Research organized the event to establish a dialogue among researchers from countries and cultures around the world. Participants came from the U.S., Spain, Iceland, Norway, India, Canada, Australia, Germany and Colombia.
“They want to promote academic conversations,” Pineda said.
Saldaña plans to do additional research this spring and summer to identify additional ways art, music and dance can be used to engage the minds of children with disabilities, especially those who are nonverbal. The plan is to prepare a paper and submit it to an academic journal.
“Those who don’t speak will develop art in a different way, and that will help further the research,” she said. “We’re looking for the right vehicles that will allow (the students) to express themselves. I’m really excited to continue.”
Charlotte “Char” Ullman, Ph.D., associate professor of teacher education, worked with the pair and encouraged them to participate in the German conference. She lauded Saldaña and her research because the role of arts in special education programs is severely understudied. She said the students and the University profited from the international exposure.
“The benefits for Claudia and Diana are great,” Ullman said. “It was a formative experience for them.”