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.

 

 

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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!

 

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.

 

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!

For Your Perusal

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

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!

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).  “