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 ( 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

Origami Origami

Origami authentically merges art and design with mathematical theory, algorithms, and technology. Math is central to learning in STEM, and is a language shared by STEM, art and design (

Origami artist Dr. Robert J. Lang of Alamo, California, also a physicist and engineer with expertise in R&D, has written and spoken extensively on these ideas ( Paper folding artist Michael LaFosse of Origamido Studio ( in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a biologist by training and uses organisms as subjects for his art.

There are even conferences about this type of work. The Sixth International Conference on Origami in Science, Mathematics, and Education (6OSME) ( will take place at lovely Yayoi Auditorium on the Hongo campus of The University of Tokyo ( in August 2014. The conference is currently taking submissions from “art, design, mathematics, science, computer science, engineering, liberal arts, history, education, and other fields and their intersections.” 

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper folding is something that interests undergraduates, as evidenced by the origami club at MIT, OrigaMIT (, so it may suggest a new type of active learning for incorporation into university courses, especially those in math and engineering.

Insect Designs

Actual Dolycoris baccarum wings left side opened right forwing opened, right hind wing folded

Actual Dolycoris baccarum
wings left side opened
right forwing opened, right hind wing folded

To continue with the theme of intersection of textile arts with science (see also, I want to share with you the work of Claire Moynihan, a textile artist in the United Kingdom:

She uses a freestyle form of 3D embroidery to realistically reproduce insects and snails. She even places them in the same collection boxes used by entomologists and labels them with scientific names.

Not all of us or all of our students are skilled in the textile arts, but some are. It is possible to give an assignment that allows students to choose a form of art for the exploration and expression of scientific knowledge. Examples such as this one may serve as an inspiration.

Bug Balls x 3 Collection (Courtesy of C. Moynihan)

Bug Balls x 3 Collection (Courtesy of C. Moynihan)

Dunk Tank Flambé

Ferris Wheel at Night (Tfioreze)

Ferris Wheel at Night

Okay, computer science  and engineering professors. Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman of Two Bit Circus have proposed a Carnival of the Future with robots, a dunk tank flambé, a laser maze, a ring toss with ignition, even a motion-capture mechanical bull. The development and making of these high tech games require computer science, art and design, engineering, and math. Then the community gets to learn about STEM through interaction with the games. Check out the work of Two Bit Circus at:

Is their form of artisanal engineering adaptable to the undergraduate or graduate classroom?

If you’d like to support their vision, and I encourage you to do so, visit:

A Yarn About Anatomy

Many STEM professors knit or crochet, as do many STEM students. Artist Shanell B. Papp studied human anatomy from a borrowed skeleton and anatomy text books as she crocheted an anatomically-correct skeleton, complete with internal organs. This work also requires mathematical skills. Check out Ms. Papp’s work at:

Shanell Papp (used with permission)

Shanell Papp (used with permission)

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:

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.