Electric Firefly


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!

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!




Male bonobo (Pan paniscus) at Lola ya Bonobo, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008

The term BioMusic seems to have many different meanings. At least a couple of them represent an authentic connection between art and science, and lend themselves to teaching and research at the university level. The research in this area seems to bring together biologists or doctors, musicians, and computer scientists.

One relates to the evolution of a musical sense as recently exemplified in research on bonobos (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/15/us-science-animals-rythym-idUSBREA1E0ZL20140215) by Dr. Patricia Gray (https://performingarts.uncg.edu/mri/research-areas/biomusic) at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (http://www.uncg.edu). This research involved an undergraduate research assistant. Other studies relate to whales songs and bird songs, and rhythmic abilities in parrots (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17065-dancing-parrots-could-help-explain-evolution-of-rhythm.html#.UwJ7TRayfzI) and sea lions (http://news.ucsc.edu/2013/04/sea-lion-beat.html).

The other meaning relates to the sonification of human biological data including heartbeat, brainwaves, respiration rate, or protein patterns or genetic traits. There’s even an ap for that : http://biobeats.com/our-story/. These topics related to health and biofeedback, as well as biological diversity.

Professional Artists as Collaborators

I went back and forth on whether to write this post at this point in time. You can see that I have two recent posts on collaboration, but then I left the subject to write about grading. I hesitated to write on this topic because I haven’t actually collaborated with a professional artist outside of academia yet. However, I have stuck my toe in the water and it feels nice, so this post is mainly forward-looking.

Wolf Trap National Park sign (Gregory F. Maxwell)  Did you know that the United States has a national park for the Performing Arts?

Wolf Trap National Park sign (Gregory F. Maxwell) Did you know that the United States has a national park for the Performing Arts?

So far, I’ve considered this type of collaboration for a professional development program supporting K12 teachers. As part of some very preliminary planning, I decided to take an informal poll of several of my artist friends and acquaintances to see if they might have an interest in helping to lead teacher-training workshops. I asked two dancers, a writer, a writer/actor/director, a cinematographer, a singer/guitarist/song-writer, and graphic designer their thoughts. To my great shock and surprise, every one of them expressed an interest!

So, the main challenge here is probably not recruiting interested artists. Rather, the challenge is likely to be in paying them properly. For each of these people, time is money and any commitment outside of their art must, understandably, make economic sense.

In K12 schools, there are many Artist in Residence programs. The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts (http://www.wolftrap.org/Education/Institute_Professional_Development.aspx) supports residencies for artists in early-childhood classrooms with a focus on STEM education in particular. As I mentioned in an earlier post (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/sunny-days/) there are some reasons to see these early childhood models as relevant to higher education. I can see an artist leading a workshop or a series of workshops for faculty professional development at my university sometime in the near future.

Well, that’s all I have to say on that subject for now. Maybe you have something to contribute?

P.S. I should mention that many professional artists could use assistants. You may want to send some of your STEM students their way.

I’ve got my ion you, baby.

When you think about music videos, you’re reminded of Orgo class, right? Dr. Neil Garg (http://www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/garg/Garg_Group/Home.html) at UCLA has a  very popular Organic Chemistry class that includes a very popular extra-credit music video assignment. Students create ringtones, too. Despite the reasonable final exam mean of 72% last semester, the class fills to capacity (http://www.chem.ucla.edu/14D-S13/Home.html).


Music with Science, Evolucio Radio (Marco A. Diaz)

Students are unable to get the catchy rhymes about reactions out of their heads, and they’re likely to remember these aspects of Organic for the rest of their lives. Lyrics are memorable because music is a multi-sensory stimulus that includes rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and melody. It also has emotional and personal components that reinforce long-term recall (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17105759).  Students learn about teamwork – a workforce preparedness goal, animation, and audio and video editing. Hop over to YouTube and boogie to even more awesome chemistry tunes.

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!

But Does the Art Have to be Good?

In my previous post I featured a story about the sonification of climate data (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/sing-of-song-of-science/). A student created a simple cello piece from global temperature numbers over time. This story was covered widely by both the conventional media and the blogosphere. The resulting music was described as beautiful (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-07/story-warming-climate-told-through-song) and haunting (http://iamchiq.fooyoh.com/iamchiq_living_lifestyle/8555284). The wide coverage of the piece indicates that it was successful in increasing the communication of the climate change message to the general public, which was, in fact, the goal of the exercise.

But one blogger, Smashly, pointed out that the resulting cello piece, while showing great initiative and some creativity, didn’t actually qualify as great, or even really good, music (http://madartlab.com/2013/07/04/more-adventures-in-terrible-data-sonification/). I’d have to agree.  I doubt that it would have been described positively by folks who heard it if they hadn’t known the backstory. She calls for musicians to take up the challenge to make data sound like real, truly moving music by, to start, finding the right chords to put behind the notes that represent the numbers.  Andrew Revin of the New York Times made a similar point (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/global-warming-trend-and-variations-charted-by-cello/?_r=0). NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt has proposed a symphonic approach to climate change communication (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2011/10/13/news-roundup-when-music-and-climate-change-meet-a-hair-below-a-sea-ice-record-and-more/).

Sunday on the Pot with George (Museum of Bad Art, Somerville, MA, USA)

Sunday on the Pot with George by Anonymous (Museum of Bad Art, Somerville, MA, USA)

So what does this mean for educators? Does the art produced through STEAM have to be any good? Some folks have asked me about assessment — how can STEM professors assess the art that’s produced through STEAM projects? These are my thoughts:

1. Perhaps we don’t have to – it’s possible to focus on the STEM content alone. I’ve done that and it worked well.

2. If one purpose of including art is to communicate the science to a general audience, that aspect could be assessed through surveys. The audience could be surveyed regarding knowledge and opinions before and after exposure to the art. In many cases, better art would equate with better communication.

3. In some cases the STEM professor is also an artist, and could bring that expertise to the development and assessment of the course.

4. A STEM professor and an art professor could collaborate on a STEAM course.


5. A STEM and an art class could be combined for a joint project as we saw at DePauw University (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-use-of-sculpture-to-teach-protein-folding/).

So, no, I don’t think that the resulting art necessarily has to be good. If good art is one of your teaching goals, then you’ll need to build that into the course in formal way. Maybe you’ll make a new friend in the Art, Music, or Theater Department!

Sing a Song of Science


Cello Player (Amedeo Modigliani)

Scientists have a responsibility to share their findings with the general public in a clear and compelling way. STEM graduate and undergraduate students should be taught to communicate with both scientific and general audiences. Communication of pressing environmental concerns, including climate change, is especially important. Double-majors and students from other disciplines may contribute communication skills less common among scientists.

Music can be an accessible form of communication and speaks to human emotions. Daniel Crawford, an undergraduate at the University of Minnesotta (http://www1.umn.edu/twincities/index.html), was tasked by Prof. Scott St. George (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~stgeorge/Scott_St._George/Main.html) with translating global temperature data from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (http://www.giss.nasa.gov) into a cello piece. Crawford created this work as part of his internship in the Geography Department, demonstrating the importance of funding for undergraduate research experiences.

How about this for an assignment for your class? Each student must find creative way to express the same global temperature data. Hmm, maybe I’ll try that!

Click through for a story on the project and access to the score for A Song for Our Warming Planet: http://ensia.com/videos/a-song-of-our-warming-planet/

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.:


Now off to practice my jazz hands…