Electric Firefly

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I first met the fabulous China Blue at the 2013 Darwin Festival (http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pkelly/darwin/). My colleague, Dr. Susan Case, organizes the festival and alerted me to the fact that this ground-breaking artist would be in attendance. She’d noted that China Blue’s work sits nicely at that intersection of art and science, where my own interests lie, and thought we might have something to discuss. It turned out that we did. A visit to her Firefly Grove installation at the John Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island, inspired our discussion below.

FF%20Tree%20China%20Blue-36SHLD: Hi China Blue! That was a great visit we had – great food, amazing dinner conversation, and then a visit to your public art exhibit, Firefly Grove. You’ve written that this piece addresses public concern about the loss of fireflies, but there are so many threatened and endangered species. As a conservation biologist with an interest in the process of setting conservation priorities I wonder – why have fireflies in particular been a focus of your efforts?

 CB: Fireflies have captivated me when I first discovered them on a visit to Italy, many years ago. I did not know they existed until then because their range sadly does not include California, where I come from. About five years ago I was experimenting with electronics, you would not think of electronics and fireflies together but one of the first exercises is to turn on and off an LED. As a sculptor I thought that was very dull and the idea of an LED turning on and off inspired the thought of making an electronic firefly. That lead to a series expanded from one to the field that you saw.

There are many interesting things about fireflies. In addition to providing us with nostalgic memories of childhood experiences collecting them, they are also bioindicators of a loss of habitat and diversity. Additionally they produce chemicals that create their nighttime illumination. One these chemicals is Luciferin. This is a chemical that is now used as a research tool to track cancer cells in the body and illuminate neuronal pathways in the brain.

 LD: I grew up with fireflies in my backyard, and I miss them. So, I’m glad they’re a focus of your work! And why were you experimenting with electronics?

 CB: My experimentation with electronics evolved out of my development of sound art works. When that began about 20 years ago, I wanted the work to be small, self-contained and without the usage of a computer or large speaker and amplifier systems which were the mode at the time. So, I taught myself how to burn sound files onto EPROM chips to loop the files. I then created small speaker systems for the work I built so I could camouflage the hardware. Finally, I attached movement sensors that would turn the audio on when people walking by. Operating in this way enabled me to create work that could then be played self-sustained in galleries over a sustained periods of time.

As time went by I realized that learning how to build circuits would be helpful to me in developing new work so that is how I ended up experimenting with electronics. 

 LD:  So, did your work with electronics change the way you thought about the biology? Or did the biology affect the way you understood or approached your art?

 CB: It was a bit of both. I did not have a strong education in science because my degrees are in art, so considering science as a topic for my work has been a slow but organic process. Through my work making the Firefly 2.0 etc., I developed an interest in biomimicry and how it can effect and influence technological changes in our world. It’s influences are wide ranging from impacting the creation of robotic gate to velcro tape (inspired by burrs) to self healing materials. And by studying fireflies and bioluminescence I was inspired to approach my work from a vantage point that I never thought of before and one that I find has both meaning while illuminating the human condition and our impact on nature.

FF_Grove_Web LD: China Blue, this sounds like cutting edge work from lots of interesting angles. I could imagine that it might appeal to undergrads looking for an internship or work-study. Do you ever take on assistants, and if so, what type of work do/would you have them do?

CB: Yes, I often work with interns and assistants. The work I assign is based on a their strengths. One assistant I am currently working with is designing new software for various projects I am working on. His strengths are in knowing a variety of computer languages (MAX/MSP, Ableton Live, Open GL and Java script) and a familiarity with Arduinos and physical computing. Another assistant I had was helpful with running the magazine for my non-profit, The Engine Institute (http://theengineinstitute.org) which requires an interest in art journalism and knowledge of WordPress, MS Word, photoshop and some d-base work. I have also worked with sculptors using new technologies and people familiar with 3d printing.

Photinus%20Biomimeticus%2072Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little interview, and that it may inspire you to combine art and science in your work. In the process I learned that her work includes not only Animal Behavior, Conservation Biology, electronics, sound engineering, and robots, sculpture and sound art, but also dance! Check out these videos to see and hear her work with Lance Massey and the Providence Ballet Theater (http://www.providenceballet.org/providenceballettheatre.htm  ): http://theengineinstitute.org/events. And maybe you can send China Blue some great candidates for an internship!

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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

 

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.

The Buzz

Hungarian postage stamp issued to publicize the value of savings and insurance

Hungarian postage stamp issued to publicize the value of savings and insurance

Many creative projects in STEM classrooms are about their subjects; fewer include their subjects in the art. But Sarah Hatton, a visual artist and bee-keeper residing in Quebec, has incorporated her focal species into her work. She’s arranged dead honeybees in mathematical patterns such as a Fibonacci spiral to dizzying effect, a reminder of the damage caused by neonicotinoid pesticides on bee navigation (http://sarahhattonartist.com). A collection of thousands of dead bees all in one place is a sad and compelling reminder of the ever-expanding crisis facing our most valuable pollinators. For a recent article on her work see http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-11/21/bee-art

Sculpture and Biology: Birds of a Feather

Greater Bird of Paradise.Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

Greater Bird of Paradise. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

In an earlier post, I wrote about the use of sculpture to explore the sub-microscopic subject of protein folding (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-use-of-sculpture-to-teach-protein-folding/) . As you might imagine, sculpture can be used in the investigation of macro-scale subjects as well.

The artist Diana Beltrán Herrera (http://www.dianabeltranherrera.com) creates breathtaking, exquisitely-detailed paper sculptures of birds and other wildlife. The birds in her Disecciones series are partially transparent, allowing a view of the organs inside.  Her sculptures demonstrate a detailed understanding of morphology, anatomy, and animal behavior. They also carry a message about appreciation of the natural world that surrounds us no matter where we live (http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/artscience/2013/09/diana-beltran-herreras-flock-of-paper-birds/).

Students who are asked to create sculptures of animals can learn about morphology, anatomy, and behavior, necessarily becoming experts on their subjects. Perhaps they will even come to care about the animals they sculpt!  We can hope, right?

Great Grey Shrike. paper cut. 2012. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist.)

Great Grey Shrike. Cut Paper. 2012. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

P.S. To see another form of visual art that addresses similar STEM topics click through to extraordinary textile art at https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/a-yarn-about-anatomy-2/

P.P. S. Also notable, paper is the material of choice for the costumes and sculptures used by Isabella Roselli in her series for the Sundance Channel.  She and Andy Byers, her costume designer, selected paper for its low cost and relative ease of use, among other artistic considerations (http://www.bradfordshellhammer.com/interviews/2010/01/andy_byers.htmlhttps://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/oh-isabella/). Maybe these folks have identified a good material for our use in STEM teaching through the arts.