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?

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But Does the Art Have to be Good?

In my previous post I featured a story about the sonification of climate data (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/sing-of-song-of-science/). A student created a simple cello piece from global temperature numbers over time. This story was covered widely by both the conventional media and the blogosphere. The resulting music was described as beautiful (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-07/story-warming-climate-told-through-song) and haunting (http://iamchiq.fooyoh.com/iamchiq_living_lifestyle/8555284). The wide coverage of the piece indicates that it was successful in increasing the communication of the climate change message to the general public, which was, in fact, the goal of the exercise.

But one blogger, Smashly, pointed out that the resulting cello piece, while showing great initiative and some creativity, didn’t actually qualify as great, or even really good, music (http://madartlab.com/2013/07/04/more-adventures-in-terrible-data-sonification/). I’d have to agree.  I doubt that it would have been described positively by folks who heard it if they hadn’t known the backstory. She calls for musicians to take up the challenge to make data sound like real, truly moving music by, to start, finding the right chords to put behind the notes that represent the numbers.  Andrew Revin of the New York Times made a similar point (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/global-warming-trend-and-variations-charted-by-cello/?_r=0). NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt has proposed a symphonic approach to climate change communication (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2011/10/13/news-roundup-when-music-and-climate-change-meet-a-hair-below-a-sea-ice-record-and-more/).

Sunday on the Pot with George (Museum of Bad Art, Somerville, MA, USA)

Sunday on the Pot with George by Anonymous (Museum of Bad Art, Somerville, MA, USA)

So what does this mean for educators? Does the art produced through STEAM have to be any good? Some folks have asked me about assessment — how can STEM professors assess the art that’s produced through STEAM projects? These are my thoughts:

1. Perhaps we don’t have to – it’s possible to focus on the STEM content alone. I’ve done that and it worked well.

2. If one purpose of including art is to communicate the science to a general audience, that aspect could be assessed through surveys. The audience could be surveyed regarding knowledge and opinions before and after exposure to the art. In many cases, better art would equate with better communication.

3. In some cases the STEM professor is also an artist, and could bring that expertise to the development and assessment of the course.

4. A STEM professor and an art professor could collaborate on a STEAM course.

or

5. A STEM and an art class could be combined for a joint project as we saw at DePauw University (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-use-of-sculpture-to-teach-protein-folding/).

So, no, I don’t think that the resulting art necessarily has to be good. If good art is one of your teaching goals, then you’ll need to build that into the course in formal way. Maybe you’ll make a new friend in the Art, Music, or Theater Department!