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 ( by Dr. Patricia Gray ( at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro ( This research involved an undergraduate research assistant. Other studies relate to whales songs and bird songs, and rhythmic abilities in parrots ( and sea lions (

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 : These topics related to health and biofeedback, as well as biological diversity.

Acting/Science Mashup

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Let’s face it. Science has an image problem. Part of that problem arises out of a complicated history, but much of it can be attributed to the fact that scientists can have a hard time communicating science in a clear and compelling manner.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science ( uses the art of acting (as well as other techniques) to improve science communication. Located in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism (, faculty members include highy-respected theater professionals, journalists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as the extraordinary Mr. Alda ( Through summer institutes on-site and customizable workshops held at locations around the United States, the Center trains researchers, professors, health care practitioners, and graduate students to more effectively teach complex scientific ideas to a wide variety of audiences. Improvisation plays a central role in this training, helping participants to understand how they’re heard by people who lack the same expertise.

Could a collaboration with your university’s theater department improve teaching? What about student presentations?

Mr. Alda hosted PBS’ American Scientific Frontiers ( for more than a decade and is deeply committed to public education in science.  The actor, director, screen-writer and author is best known for his work on M*A*S*H and The West Wing.

(See also an earlier related post about Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre:

South Korean Leadership on STEAM

The Australian Council of Learned Academies, in an effort to build Australia’s STEM workforce and increase international competitiveness, recently commissioned reports on similar efforts in 24 countries, including the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea or Korea) (  – a great resource if you are asked to consider the future of STEM in your own region). This particular report ( was authored by Jae-Eun Jon, Korea University ( and Hae-In Chung, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (

Banpo Bridge with a rainbow fountain over the Han River in Seoul (Gu Gyobok)

Banpo Bridge with a rainbow fountain over the Han River in Seoul (Gu Gyobok)

Therein they describe the efforts of the Republic of Korea in the area of STEAM. While Korean students have excelled in math and science, and the country has a need for increased numbers of STEM-capable graduates, interest in the STEM disciplines is weak. To remedy this problem and foster creativity, beginning in August 2011 the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology restructured the entire Korean STEM curriculum around the idea of STEAM. The amount of math content was reduced by 20% to allow time for STEAM. There have been many opportunities for associated professional development, and two new STEAM schools for the gifted and talented crowd are scheduled to open by 2016. Additional schools have been selected at STEAM Leader Schools to pilot the full STEAM curriculum, and teacher study groups have been formed. Universities and Colleges of Education are expected to develop curricula that will train future teachers in STEAM and to carry out STEAM research.

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.

The Random Walk and the Final Cause

A small team of researchers (Jill Fantauzzacoffin, Juan Rogers, and Jay Bolter)  based at Georgia Tech ( recently some completed interesting work that married an examination of STEAM processes with the development and teaching of an upper-level undergraduate/graduate course (

The researchers examined the work of engineers and artists who were working to create similar technologies.  For both, innovation was born of problems and questions that the individual makers found compelling, and creativity was tied to subjectivity. The maker’s response to failure and uncertainty were significant with regard to the products of the work.

Chief green wall designers at Green over Grey - Living Walls and Design (Green Artist)

Chief green wall designers at Green over Grey – Living Walls and Design (Green Artist)

Engineers tended to use a teleological creative strategy that involved working toward a well-defined design goal. The work toward this goal begins with a body of accumulated knowledge and is tested against this knowledge throughout the process, minimizing uncertainty. Artists tended to take a “random walk”, a stochastic creative strategy, to explore a more general direction for exploration. They also work within constraints, but constraints that are in some ways less explicit. The artists were guided by an internal sense of authenticity. In comparison to the teleological approach of the engineers, the stochastic method resulted in wider exploration and the inclusion of more sociocultural concerns.

The project-based course served both art and engineering students in a studio setting where they could learn from both disciplines.  The class was small, just 13 students. Students worked through the design process three times with lots of support. They were told to follow ideas that they themselves found compelling, and they were allowed to fail, and were expected to work within both of the teleological and stochacistic creative strategies. Students made their process explicit, thereby becoming familiar with metacognition, a characteristic of expert learning.

When Jill led this work, she was a PhD candidate. I’d say that she’s one to watch.

Oh, Isabella!

Actor, model, writer, filmmaker, student of biology, and conservation activist Isabella Rossellini ( has taken an approach to science communication that can be adapted to the university classroom. In collaboration with artists and filmmakers Robert Redford (, Rick Gilbert (, Andy Byers (, and Jody Shapiro (, as well as with scientists John Bohannon*  ( and Claudio Campagna ( , 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 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) (, the work was honored by the Audubon Society (, 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 (, 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 ( in Colombia last year.

* John Bohannon was featured in an earlier post (

**** 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!

OpenLab Network

The OpenLab project ( at the University of California Santa Cruz is led by Jennifer Parker, an associate professor of Art + Digital Arts New Media and Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an associate professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) ( and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (, among others. OpenLab has been around for about two years.

Collaborators include organizations with related goals within and outside of the University of California system, working artists, scientists, environmental activists, M.D.s, graduate students, and most likely a few undergraduates as well. Projects range from an interactive sculpture/research on the topic of mass transfer in binary stars, to videos/research on the environmental impacts of latex balloons, to an iPad app for virtual group therapy for families with babies in intensive care (, to name a few.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

To give you an idea of the types of work possible through this program, the facilities used by the OpenLab Network include a foundry, a metal fabrication shop, a digital imaging lab, photo and print studios, wood shop, and a supercomputer lab for undergraduates, affectionately referred to as the SLUG. The performing arts also play a role.

Perhaps the important aspect of this project, one that sets it apart from many other science + art initiatives, is that the directors state a research purpose:

“Within this immersive environment, we will conduct research to acquire skills and knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries between science, education, and the arts while sharing expertise in collaborative research methodologies.

The following research questions will be investigated:

(1) How can we strengthen or create new methodologies that truly engage art and science thinking?

(2) Is an interdisciplinary laboratory space for cross-disciplinary and collaborative research more engaging and productive for students and faculty without these resources?

We should all keep an eye out for the answers.

Goings On About Town

Today I present a sampling of a few arts integration efforts at universities around the United States. I hope you find them interesting!

Undergraduate and graduate students participate in the Art of Science Competition at Princeton University.

Undergraduates in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary have the opportunity to do their clinicals at the Virgina STEAM Academy (, a public residential school for gifted middle-school and high-school students, set to open in 2014.

In 2012, Palm Beach State College began a 5-yr STEAM initiative with a focus on workforce preparedness. They plan to support STEAM program enhancement and provide scholarships and internships to undergraduates. Their website emphasizes the many STEM resources and programs at the college.

Detail a the roof of the College of Engineering at University of Northern Florida

Detail a the roof of the College of Engineering at University of Northern Florida

The STEAM Journal is published out of Claremont Graduate University. Their inaugural issue was released on-line in March 2013 and included academic papers, lesson plans at the K12 and undergraduate levels, and artwork. The journal is edited by faculty members and a Ph.D. candidate in their School of Education, the Director of their Transdisciplinary Studies Program, and Professor of Art. This journal could provide a venue for STEAM-related efforts, hopefully to include rigorous research, by graduate students and faculty members.

Imagining the Brain

A recent paper by David Hay et al. of Kings College London ( 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. (

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:

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).  “