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.

Virtual STEAM

The field of scientific visualization represents an authentic connection between the arts/design and the STEM disciplines.  Daniel Keefe ( and David Laidlaw (  recently reported on what they’ve learned through the their teaching in the field of Virtual Reality ( VR is advanced visualization technology that has broad appeal for undergraduates of all disciplines.

Stenger with VPL gear. Nicole Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality

Nicole Stenger with VPL gear. Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality.

The authors discovered that when art and STEM students worked together on Virtual Reality data visualization projects, they each began to develop some expertise in the other’s discipline. This exploration improved cross-disciplinary communication, facilitating the collaboration.

The authors incorporated important elements of art classes into their teaching. For one, they used a critique-style discussion of work-in-progress. Scientists knowledgeable about the data joined in. They found these classroom critiques so useful that they brought this teaching/learning technique into other computer science courses. (I could see how art-style classroom critique could be useful in other STEM courses as well.) Both groups of students faced the additional challenge of effective communication with the scientists whose research they were representing. In life-after-university, this third party could represent a client or additional collaborator.

They also emphasized the importance of “sketching” prior to programming. Sketching took various forms including paper & pencil, a series of concept sketches using Adobe Illustrator, acting out possible user experiences, short films, sculptures, and prototyping in the CavePainting virtual reality system. Data display environments help to align sketches with the reality of the data.

This paper causes me to reflect on my own teaching and on the importance of reflection for learning. It’s important to slow down, develop lots of ideas, get lots of feedback, and learn how to understand each other.

The paper described here was published in the refereed proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2013 which was held as part of the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

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.

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 (, was tasked by Prof. Scott St. George ( with translating global temperature data from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies ( 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:

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).  “

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!

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.:

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…

The Use of Sculpture to Teach Protein Folding

One of the main challenges in teaching through STEAM is to find authentic connections between the science and the arts/design. The relationship between sculpture and protein folding is one of these authentic connections. At DePauw University, a collaboration between students and faculty members from the chemistry and sculpture departments involved the creation of sculptures that showed the folding of proteins. The result was true arts integration, a step beyond STEAM.

T0281-bakerprediction_overlayThe project, led by Daniel Gurnon, Julian Voss-Andreae, and Jacob Stanley, combined an art class and a science class, and included the participation of a guest artist. The students collaborated, solved problems, were inspired to do additional research, raised important questions about the science, and developed metaphors to address the conceptual challenges related to physical and temporal scaling. They certainly spent more time thinking about protein folding than they would have otherwise, and time-on-task often equates with greater learning. The tactile experience of constructing the sculptures also likely contributed to learning. The resulting sculptures continue to inspire learning by both art and science students through questions that are raised by the works and the resulting discussions.

In your own STEM teaching, are there structures that are challenging for students to visualize? Could sculpture be a useful approach? Would it be useful to collaborate with an art class? Would it be helpful to have an artist visit your classroom?