Indigo-A-Go-Go

Did you know that there are a seemingly endless numbers of colors of indigo?

"Indian indigo dye lump" by Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) - Own work.

“Indian indigo dye lump” by Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) – Own work.

The use of natural dyes involves the identification, collection, cultivation and conservation of dye plants, the use of chemistry, including natural mordants/fixatives, fermentation, the art of dyeing, and in many cases, an understanding of local customs and the historical context. Dye plants are often studied along side medicinal plants. In addition to plants, invertebrates and minerals are used sources for dyes. Authentically STEAMy, right???

Here’s link to a nice, older article on the topic, including diagrams some important flavonoid dyes: http://userwww.sfsu.edu/msequin/JCE1981ChemofPlantDyes.pdf

And here’s another to the Facebook page of textile artist Hisaki SUMI. Check out her absolutely gorgeous images! (Thanks, Tani!): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Science-Art-of-Natural-Dyes/129463670414005

 

Communicable Biology

Once a year or so, I have a biology student who’s a great photographer or illustrator. We talk about scientific photography or scientific illustration as a career path, but I haven’t been able to offer much beyond that. Well, now I can. A colleague just turned me on to this organization, the BioCommunications Association (http://www.bca.org/about/about.html).

From their website:

A typical BCA member is a dedicated, passionate, creative and technical biological/medical photographer, graphic designer, illustrator or videographer employed by hospitals, medical facilities, colleges, universities and research institutions in the life sciences and health care industry.

They offer an education grant: The fund has awarded grants to applicants from several countries for a wide variety of projects such as preparation for certification, attendance at workshops, photographic exhibit support, and the development of new imaging techniques for the microscope. Awards are limited to no more than 33% of available funds for the year and are typically $500 or less. and Any student, trainee, biocommunicator, or institutional program that can demonstrate a need for project funding may apply. So, it’s only $500, but its something.

They also offer a scholarship to support educational opportunities for full-time undergraduate or graduate student pursuing a career in scientific/biomedical visual communications, at an accredited school.

Additionally, they run an annual BioImages competition. Check out their amazing winners gallery here: http://www.bca.org/gallery/bioimages2014salon.html. Be sure to scroll down for the videos!

Last but not least, check out their nicely curated list of links. They include links to academic programs, inspirations and stock images. Maybe I’ll be inspired to branch out from WikiMedia Images.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.

 

 

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!

 

Getting the Word Out

Here’s a link to a short article by the Engine Institute, Inc. that mentions my presentation at the New England Faculty Development Conference: http://theengineinstitute.org/moving-from-stem-to-steam

"Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4" by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) - Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg.

“Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4” by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) – Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de

I strongly encourage you to check out the work of the Engine Institute, which aims to foster cross-fertilization of art and science in some pretty innovative ways. Their Executive Director is the fabulous China Blue Wong (http://www.chinablueart.com). I hope to feature her here soon.

 

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?

The Art Museum as Collaborator

Have you considered going outside of your own academic institution to find an artistic collaborator? A STEM faculty member may be greeted with quite a lot of interest by an arts institution.

Many art museums, for example, display art that involves STEM in its creation or as it subject. Consider the chemistry in painting, math in fashion design, or computer science in augmented reality art.  And then there are botanical prints, art derived from mathematical patterns,  and landscapes that show changes in land-use over time, just to name a few. However, the museum may not have much contact with scientists, mathematicians, or engineers who could provide a different perspective on the work or connect with the visitors through scientific and mathematical ideas.

"Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands: no3," by John Craig Freeman, augmented reality public art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.

“Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands: no3,” by John Craig Freeman, augmented reality public art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.

Education is an important part of the mission of museums, as is collaboration with educational institutions. You may find museum staff members to be intrigued by the idea of collaboration with higher ed instead of K-12 for a change. They may even be interested in leading a workshop for your colleagues to take place at the museum or at your university.

An art museum may be interested in participating in the dialog around STEM education that takes place at academic meetings, but may be seen as out of place at a scientific or faculty professional development conference.  A collaboration with a STEM faculty member may help others to recognize the legitimacy of a museum’s voice in these settings.

And don’t forget that art and art/science museums can be great resources for your STEM classes. At a museum a student can improve his or her ability to observe details, interpret artwork in the context of conservation biology, or learn about the science of making art.