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!

 

Art Science Movers and Shakers at an Arts University

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Whoa. Why did it take me so long to come across ArtSTEM?? ArtSTEM (http://www.artstem.org) is a project led by science faculty member, Dr. Janna Levin (http://www.uncsa.edu/academicprograms/faculty27.htm), and a history faculty member, Michael Wakeford (http://faculty.uncsa.edu/generalstudies/wakefordm/), at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (http://www.uncsa.edu). It’s alway a pleasure to find a STEAM-related project that is led by both a scientist and someone from the humanities. Without both of those perspectives in the leadership, sometimes the approach is too one-sided and the project’s efforts fail to effectively communicate clearly across disciplines.

ArtSTEM faculty projects involve arts high school and university students in a great variety of projects including plays about the process  of science, food science and food presentation, the intersection of anatomy & physiology with dance, the intersection of judo with physics, short films on science that use animation and puppetry, the art and technology of sound, the sonification of solar data, and the aesthetics of regulation in architecture.

ArtSTEM is even offering what looks like a very interesting course this coming semester. I encourage you to read the course description!  http://www.artstem.org/2013/04/22/artstem-course-planned-for-spring-2014/

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.

or

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!