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

 

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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!

 

STEM is funny. No, really.

sciencevsart

Science vs. Art (courtesy of the artist)

When I saw this poster, Science vs. Art (click on the image to expand), by Rosemary Mosco (http://www.rosemarymosco.com) I knew I needed to write about her work!  Ms. Mosco is a field naturalist who creates charming, informative and funny comics, charts, posters and video games about nature.

Even if your students aren’t great artists like Ms. Mosco, they can probably make a comic, or illustrated poster or chart, about almost any STEM topic. Through the creative process, students will explore STEM ideas and concepts, in many cases work collaboratively, and express what they have learned. Their creations can also be shared with a general audience, advancing learning beyond the classroom.  Ms. Mosco’s work can provide them with inspiration!

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!

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.

See You in the Funny Pages!

Could you use graphic non-fiction to teach a STEM subject? Well, science cartoonist and Professor of Biology at Juniata College, Dr. Jay Hosler has done just that.  Check out his blog at: http://www.jayhosler.com/jshblog/

Example of a style of cartoon character by Drawerofshadows

The front page of his blog currently features some great student work from his Animal Behavior course. Almost any STEM story could be told through this art form, which can take a tone that ranges from whimsical to dark. Also, comics would be well-suited for group work as the conceptualization could be cooperative, and the drawing, inking, coloring, and writing could be delegated to different students.

As with other forms of STEAM, this work is certain to form right brain/left brain connections, and will surely result in more time-on-task. Be sure to check out Dr. Hosler’s own science comics and graphic novels on topics as varies as evolution and the history of science : http://www.jayhosler.com

Does the Science Move You?

Movement/Dance is being used to teach STEM processes, especially those that take place at less accessible physical and temporal scales. Dance/movement can be used in undergraduate classrooms to teach, among other topics,

  • the action of ATP synthase
  • the movement of blood through the human body
  • the workings of an electron transport chain
  • the role of wave action in marine habitats
  • transport within the vascular systems of plants
  • the evolution of locomotion in vertebrate lineages
Tosy DiscoRobo is a dancing robot. The Best of Toyfair 2012 (Popular Science).

Tosy DiscoRobo, the Dancing Robot

When movement is used in STEM teaching, students encounter a novel way to learn the physical, chemical, and energetic components of systems. Students given full responsibility for developing a dance must ask questions about the science and have a rigorous understanding of their topic.  Dance allows students to explore ‘what if’ scenarios, to test hypotheses that would be difficult or impossible to test otherwise. Movement/dance allows students to express themselves creatively and as individuals, building connections to their core identities. Through this work, they are required to analyze and use the science, and are able to do so even when typical research facilities are lacking. If turned into a performance, dance/movement allows students to share what they have learned in a novel and engaging way. The importance of joy in learning can’t be understated!

Want to get involved right now? This Thursday, become part of a human DNA strand at MIT!  http://mit-human-dna-esli.eventbrite.com/?goback=.gmp_27230.gde_27230_member_229261384

Dance is also used at the graduate and professional levels (more on that later) of science. The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, sponsored by Science Magazine and AAAS, exhorts scientists to express themselves through dance, saying, “You’re a scientist. With your superpowers comes the responsibility to communicate the thrill of science to the public. Yes, sometimes in dance form. So dance like you mean it.”

Check out Dance Your Ph.D.:  http://gonzolabs.org/dance/videos/

It’s good enough for scores of Ph.D. scientists. Is it good enough for your students?

If you aren’t convinced yet, then watch this amazing Ted Talk by John Bohannon of Harvard University, the founder of Dance Your Ph.D.:

http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint_a_modest_proposal.html

Now off to practice my jazz hands…

What Can Be Learned from Double Majors

A recent Curb Center report by Dr. Richard Pitt and Dr. Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University addresses the rise of double-majoring among university students in the United States: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/curbcenter/manage/files/Teagle-Report-Final-3-11-13-2.pdf

While this report does not address STEAM specifically, it does produce conclusions that have implications for STEAM at the undergraduate level.

For a student to experience durable learning in a STEM subject, it may be useful for him or her to draw connections between the STEM subject and his or her core identity. The authors demonstrate that core identities can often lie in the humanities, including the arts.

"Berlin to New York in less than One Hour!" written by Hugo Gernsback and illustrated by Frank R Paul in the November 1931 issue of ''Everyday Science and Mechanics''. (Volume 2, Number 12.)

“Double majors seem aware of the ‘status’ and ‘prestige’ of their majors. Science and economics stand out as the highest status majors (as rated, in aggregate form, by the students themselves); humanities are lower status majors. Interestingly, when double majoring students present themselves and their educational interests to parents and potential employers, they focus on their high status major. When they think about their own ‘core identity,’ they are more likely to focus on their lower status major.”

Moreover, there is the potential for greater creativity and risk-taking in STEM coursework, but this creativity is much more likely to occur for students who double-major.

“Eight percent of biology single majors report that their coursework allows them to express their creativity; but when biology is their second major 43% report that their biology coursework allows them to express their creativity. When it comes to taking risks, one percent of single chemistry majors report that they can take risks with their assignments, whereas 38% of students who take chemistry as their second major report being able to take risks with their chemistry assignments. For math majors, only one percent report that they can take assignments in multiple directions when math is their only major; when it is their second major nineteen percent report that this happens regularly in their math classes.”

This difference may be more likely in students who are more inclined to double-major because they take a variety of approaches to problem-solving, but double-majoring itself seemed to be the cause of creative ‘spill-over’  into relatively low-creativity coursework. Structured support in fields that employ greater creativity supports student creative work in STEM subjects.  A STEAM approach to teaching may have a similar effect.

I encourage you to read the entire report as their findings have multiple implications for major trends in university-level education.