Does the Art Have to Be Good, Revisited

So, I’ve been reflecting on my use of the arts to teach biology over the past two years.

My goal is for students to learn the science, not for them to become good artists of any sort. And I can’t teach the arts or design to them beyond the ways in which those arts or design are part of my own training.

"Max contrast Brain MRI 131058 rgbce" by Nevit Dilmen (talk) - Own work.

“Max contrast Brain MRI 131058 rgbce” by Nevit Dilmen (talk) – Own work.

I like the use of the arts in learning. The art that’s created doesn’t have to be good art because it isn’t ever presented. For example, students can act out transport through xylem and phloem (the vascular tissue of plants), bring props, include music that’s meaningful to them, and use movement and each other to embody a process that is normally challenging to understand. New, smart scientific questions get asked and answered through experimentation using movement. There’s joy in this learning. And rigor. Shouldn’t these two always go together? If a dance or theatre professor co-taught this exercise, it might be presentable, but otherwise it’s not. Other examples of this type of learning include having students write haikus to gain experience expressing Newtonian physics in their own words, or scientific illustration to encourage close observation.

When the art is integral to the presentation of science, such as the theatre and design aspects of conference-style presentations or scientific presentations to a general audience, student presentations can be greatly improved with the help of some outside resources (acting for science videos – https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/act-like-you-mean-it/, Edward Tufte’s books – http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/).

Aside from scientific presentations, I’m not so sure that I like the use of creative projects as a way to express science learning or communicate science when some of the students lack an arts/design background. The students with formal artistic training can produce really great things, pieces that show rigor from both a scientific and artistic perspective. Those who don’t have that background tend to create pieces that are weak in both fields, suggesting that the science hasn’t been learned or explored sufficiently. Perhaps that’s because the challenge of creating real art is too great and therefore distracting. Creative assignments for those students may do them a real disservice. They could have spent that effort building science skills instead.

Those are my musings for today. Let me know if you think I should change my mind!

 

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Art Science Movers and Shakers at an Arts University

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Whoa. Why did it take me so long to come across ArtSTEM?? ArtSTEM (http://www.artstem.org) is a project led by science faculty member, Dr. Janna Levin (http://www.uncsa.edu/academicprograms/faculty27.htm), and a history faculty member, Michael Wakeford (http://faculty.uncsa.edu/generalstudies/wakefordm/), at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (http://www.uncsa.edu). It’s alway a pleasure to find a STEAM-related project that is led by both a scientist and someone from the humanities. Without both of those perspectives in the leadership, sometimes the approach is too one-sided and the project’s efforts fail to effectively communicate clearly across disciplines.

ArtSTEM faculty projects involve arts high school and university students in a great variety of projects including plays about the process  of science, food science and food presentation, the intersection of anatomy & physiology with dance, the intersection of judo with physics, short films on science that use animation and puppetry, the art and technology of sound, the sonification of solar data, and the aesthetics of regulation in architecture.

ArtSTEM is even offering what looks like a very interesting course this coming semester. I encourage you to read the course description!  http://www.artstem.org/2013/04/22/artstem-course-planned-for-spring-2014/

Grading Student Work

Ah, grading. Our favorite word, yes?

Elephant crossing the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa, 22 January 2007 (Entropy1963)

Elephant crossing the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa, 22 January 2007 (Entropy1963)

So, how does a STEM professor go about grading student work with artistic content? We’re professional educators with years of experience, so we should be able to figure this out, maybe.

If you’re planning a STEAM course that will be co-taught with an artist, you’re probably all set, but few people do these fully integrated courses.

I’ve used two separate approaches to grading STEAM work. One focuses solely on STEM content and the other incorporates an assessment of the art.

Grading STEM Content Only   I did this in my Botany course in which students, as a class, used acting/movement to demonstrate and explore the movement of water, mineral nutrients and sugars through the vascular system of a plant. Their learning was tested through an essay question on an exam. These answers were the best I’d ever seen in 15 years of teaching this course.

Grading the Art and the STEM Content  I’ve used this approach in three different courses. In my biology majors intro course, student give scientific presentations, which necessarily include performance skills. I use a detailed rubric to assess both the content and the performance. I’ve also taken this approach in an upper-level conservation biology course and a non-majors intro course. Students did creative projects about endangered species or current issues in biology, depending on the course.  In both cases, the creative aspect had to be both clear and compelling to earn points, in addition to including enough biology content and correct biology content. I engaged all of the students in  studio-style critiques and in evaluation of the work. This approach made sense to the students.

I’m sure that there are many ways to do this, and that my own approaches will change over time. What will you do in your own classes?

Acting/Science Mashup

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Let’s face it. Science has an image problem. Part of that problem arises out of a complicated history, but much of it can be attributed to the fact that scientists can have a hard time communicating science in a clear and compelling manner.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org) uses the art of acting (as well as other techniques) to improve science communication. Located in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism (https://journalism.cc.stonybrook.edu), faculty members include highy-respected theater professionals, journalists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as the extraordinary Mr. Alda (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000257/). Through summer institutes on-site and customizable workshops held at locations around the United States, the Center trains researchers, professors, health care practitioners, and graduate students to more effectively teach complex scientific ideas to a wide variety of audiences. Improvisation plays a central role in this training, helping participants to understand how they’re heard by people who lack the same expertise.

Could a collaboration with your university’s theater department improve teaching? What about student presentations?

Mr. Alda hosted PBS’ American Scientific Frontiers (http://www.pbs.org/saf/) for more than a decade and is deeply committed to public education in science.  The actor, director, screen-writer and author is best known for his work on M*A*S*H and The West Wing.

(See also an earlier related post about Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre: https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/act-like-you-mean-it/)

Virtual STEAM

The field of scientific visualization represents an authentic connection between the arts/design and the STEM disciplines.  Daniel Keefe (http://www-users.cs.umn.edu/~keefe/dfk_iweb/Home.html) and David Laidlaw (http://cs.brown.edu/~dhl/)  recently reported on what they’ve learned through the their teaching in the field of Virtual Reality (http://ivlab.cs.umn.edu/papers/Keefe-2013-VR-Design-for-STEAM.pdf). VR is advanced visualization technology that has broad appeal for undergraduates of all disciplines.

Stenger with VPL gear. Nicole Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality

Nicole Stenger with VPL gear. Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality.

The authors discovered that when art and STEM students worked together on Virtual Reality data visualization projects, they each began to develop some expertise in the other’s discipline. This exploration improved cross-disciplinary communication, facilitating the collaboration.

The authors incorporated important elements of art classes into their teaching. For one, they used a critique-style discussion of work-in-progress. Scientists knowledgeable about the data joined in. They found these classroom critiques so useful that they brought this teaching/learning technique into other computer science courses. (I could see how art-style classroom critique could be useful in other STEM courses as well.) Both groups of students faced the additional challenge of effective communication with the scientists whose research they were representing. In life-after-university, this third party could represent a client or additional collaborator.

They also emphasized the importance of “sketching” prior to programming. Sketching took various forms including paper & pencil, a series of concept sketches using Adobe Illustrator, acting out possible user experiences, short films, sculptures, and prototyping in the CavePainting virtual reality system. Data display environments help to align sketches with the reality of the data.

This paper causes me to reflect on my own teaching and on the importance of reflection for learning. It’s important to slow down, develop lots of ideas, get lots of feedback, and learn how to understand each other.

The paper described here was published in the refereed proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2013 which was held as part of the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

Oh, Isabella!

Actor, model, writer, filmmaker, student of biology, and conservation activist Isabella Rossellini (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000618/?ref_=sr_1) has taken an approach to science communication that can be adapted to the university classroom. In collaboration with artists and filmmakers Robert Redford (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000602/), Rick Gilbert (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0318215/), Andy Byers (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2974412/), and Jody Shapiro (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0788539/), as well as with scientists John Bohannon*  (http://www.johnbohannon.org) and Claudio Campagna (http://rinconchico.com.ar/scientific-activities/) , she created many shorts and as well as one longer film on topics in animal behavior and evolution.

Her body of shorts called Green P**** (viewable at http://preview.tinyurl.com/mq7rhy4) is made up three series: Green P**** on the mating habits of insects and marine animals (including Bon Appetit – three shorts on conservation issues), Seduce Me on seduction in the animal kingdom, and Mamma, just released this May, on motherhood in the animal kingdom.  Shorts were screened at the Natural History Museum (UK) (http://www.nhm.ac.uk), the work was honored by the Audubon Society (http://www.audubon.org), and Ms. Rossellini has spoken at several universities about her process. Oh, and I should say that she stars in the title role of each short.

two 0.28 inch (7 mm) small flies of the family Anthomyiidae (André Karwath)

Two 0.28 inch (7 mm) small flies of the family Anthomyiidae (André Karwath)

These films are offbeat, hilarious, disgusting, informative, highly memorable. What could be more appropriate for teaching undergraduates? I would bet that if you have your students act out complex animal behaviors, mating or otherwise, they won’t forget what they learned in the process!

Animals Distract Me (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1839406/), a film whose scientific focus is on evolution and animal behavior was developed through Ms. Rossellin’s own curousity about the animal world. Featuring the actor herself as Darwin, it was shown at the 2012 Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartegena de Indias (http://ficcifestival.com) in Colombia last year.

* John Bohannon was featured in an earlier post (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/category/dance/).

**** Yep, folks were starting to find this site through inappropriate searches, so I had to get rid of some letters and use a tiny url link!

Sunny Day!

Cookie Monster, a philosophical Muppet who now enjoys cookies in addition to a well-balanced diet, comes out to greet Marine families during a USO performance of Sesame Street Live aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River, April 28. During the show, Cookie Monster gave advice to Marine families about moving away from friends.

Cookie Monster, a philosophical Muppet who now enjoys cookies in addition to a well-balanced diet, comes out to greet Marine families during a USO performance of Sesame Street Live aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River. During the show, Cookie Monster gave advice to Marine families about moving away from friends.

This year Sesame Street (http://www.sesamestreet.org), a long-running children’s television program grounded in education research, has followed a curriculum in STEAM!!

Okay, you may wonder, why should educators at the university level care?

Here’s why we should care:

  1. Universities prepare early childhood education teachers. If their university-level STEM training includes STEAM, early childhood teachers can build on the Sesame Street STEAM curriculum in their own classrooms.
  2. We do and will continue to have STEM majors who have experienced STEAM at the preK-12 level. We can take advantage of these funds of knowledge in STEAM that our students bring to the classroom.
  3. Pre-K and university efforts in STEAM bear remarkable similarities, as evidenced in the Sesame Street curriculum document that supported this year’s work (STEM+A Curricular Seminar Summary: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Art). In many passages one could simply swap the word student for the word child to produce something that looks like an argument for STEAM in higher ed. Quite a few of the examples of content (not included here) are also adaptable to the university level. Greater communication across all levels of teaching and learning will move us forward faster.

Check out these quotes from the document:

“We can also help make the connection between scientific and innovative thinking to clearly demonstrate that the Arts can be used to inspire learning and teach STEM concepts. These process skills enable children to formulate thoughts into investigable questions, solve problems, and allow for the learning of new concepts and “big ideas” to become apparent and meaningful.”

“We can also help make the connection between scientific and innovative thinking to clearly demonstrate that the Arts can be used to inspire learning and teach STEM concepts. These process skills enable children to formulate thoughts into investigable questions, solve problems, and allow for the learning of new concepts and “big ideas” to become apparent and meaningful.”

Articulation across all levels of education, including high quality children’s programming, is important as we work to improve STEM teaching and learning.

Plus, who doesn’t love Sesame Street? Tell me, who’s your favorite muppet??

[While Sesame Street is a driven by a whole-child curriculum, they revise their curriculum to highlight specific educational needs. To address these needs, they invite advisors (academics, researchers, teachers, parent engagement professionals, and others) to join them for a curriculum seminar in which they present their research and experience. Colleagues at Sesame Workshop were kind enough to share with me the confidential curriculum document that resulted from the Season 43 curricular seminar on STEAM. Thank you, Sesame Workshop!]

Imagining the Brain

A recent paper by David Hay et al. of Kings College London (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.21055/abstract) examines the role of scientific illustration as evidence of expertise, and considers pedagogical techniques that can lead undergraduates to produce illustrations indistinguishable from those of PIs.

Image shows tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mouse_cingulate_cortex_neurons.jpg)

Tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain.

An understanding of invisible structures, processes and phenomena requires a level of abstraction that presents a challenge to the typical undergraduate student. The authors show how activities that support the creativity and imaginations of students can lead to expert-level work.Their interventions required the students to use imagination and movement to see themselves as their biological subjects, in this case brain cells undergoing development. The activities appeared to provide students with insight into the research perspective without the need for benchwork. After participation in the activities, student drawings were more likely to represent a variety of types of neurons and to demonstrate the creative approach, imagination, and hypothesis-building typical of PIs. They include elements of neuron identity that are not visible. It is suggested that illustrations by PIs, which to a certain extent represent their original conceptual models, may fuse objective scientific illustration with elements of design.

As an introduction to their argument, the authors present useful reviews of the topics of Science Studies and of Science Visual Culture. They also reference Objectivity (Daston & Galison, 2007), and use the framework presented therein for what they describe as the three types of representation in science: Truth-to-Nature, Mechanical Objectivity, and Trained Judgement. Benjamin Cohen gives a clear summary of this framework in his blog post on the topic: http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2008/01/03/objectivity-truetonature-mecha/

The authors conclude that

“… an ability to label what is otherwise invisible, functions as the code marking-off a boundary between real professionals and novices or the boundary between the members of a specific laboratory culture and outsiders. Our current data reinforce this view suggesting that there is an imaginative constant to experts’ images, depending on their embodiment of relationships toward objects experienced thorough the material realization of experiments (see Radder, 2012).  “

Act Like You Mean It

If you think some professors can be stiff in front of a classroom, you should see their students!  Many university STEM courses require students to give presentations. Few seniors can present well, and some students even leave graduate school with lousy presentation skills, hence professors who give uninspiring and even off-putting lectures. There’s considerable overlap between presentation skills and acting skills. Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre, has given some wonderful workshops on Teaching as Performance through the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning of Harvard University. The first two videos in this Boc Center series (http://tinyurl.com/dxqxhv8) feature Ms. Houfek’s workshops. The videos were designed for professors, but when your STEM students present they become teachers, so these videos would be appropriate to share with them as well.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through a process called sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through the process of sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

The topics addressed include:

  • Teacher/Presenter/Actor preparation
  • Landing your energy
  • Audience engagement
  • Addressing stage fright
  • The use of breath
  • Taking pleasure in words, even technical ones
  • The use of metaphors to address different learning styles
  • Waking up the body
  • Opening up the voice

There’s even an illustrated guide to the workshop exercises that could be adapted for your STEM classroom: http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic650252.files/actguide.pdf Break a leg.