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.
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!
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
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.
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!
I’m excited to share with you an important addition to this blog – a bibliography constructed by Nancy Dennis, Science and Technology Librarian at Salem State University, and my collaborator in the research on the topic of STEAM. Nancy has collected and annotated a stimulating selection of articles on the topic of the intersection of the visual arts and the sciences, all with relevance to higher education. We’ll be adding to this bibliography over time, so be sure to check back occasionally. The bibliography can be found in the ‘Pages’ section: https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/science-visual-arts-bibliography/
Let me draw your attention to a couple of items of interest from the bibliography. First, please note this quote from a fascinating 1988 interview with Dr. Elliot Eisner, Professor Emeritus of Education and of Art.
Tattoo designed by Christian Cordova of Tattoo del Mono, Chile
“Learning in the arts is cognitively a very sophisticated operation. It requires the exercise of imagination. It requires the cultivation of human sensibility, the ability to pay attention to nuance, the ability to capitalize on the adventitious and on surprise in the course of working on a project or topic, the ability to know when to shift goals when working on something. It is the farthest thing from an algorithm. Much of the lack of development of critical thinking in American schools has been due to an emphasis on subject matter and on processes that do not cultivate human judgement and other forms of higher-level thinking.”
As scientists, we use most of the same elements of higher-level thinking in our own practice. In the same interview, Dr. Eisner voiced support for arts integration as long as it did not involve the sacrifice of formal art programs in schools.
Second, you may enjoy a 2012 article by Poli et al. that describes the use of topic of tattooing to explore world cultures, design, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, public health, medicine, physics, and engineering!