A Scientist in an Art Museum

I’m taking my sabbatical as Scientist-in-Residence at the Peabody Essex Museum (http://www.pem.org). You may ask, what could a scientist possibly have to do in a museum of art and culture? Quite a lot, it turns out. In fact, I could be kept busy for decades with the projects I’ve envisioned. More on that later.

Today I’d like to discuss the following question, one that has come up in my discussions with the education folks at the museum: Where exactly lies the intersection of art and the natural sciences?

I would argue that the crux may be found in observation. Read this quote by Lane Cooper, highly-regarded English educator from his book Louis Agassiz: Illustrative Extracts on his Method of Instruction (1917):

The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California toppled by San Francisco earthquake, April 1906

The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California toppled by San Francisco earthquake, April 1906

“It is simply the fact that, reduced to the simplest terms, there is but a single method of investigating the objects of natural science and the productions of human genius. We study a poem, the work of man’s art, in the same way that Agassiz made Shaler study a fish, the work of God’s art; the object in either case is to discover the relation between form or structure and function or essential effect. It was no chance utterance of Agassiz when he said that a year or two of natural history, studied as he understood it, would give the best kind of training for any other sort of mental work.

While Cooper compared the study of literature to the study of natural history, the same comparison holds for the visual arts and any natural science. Seeing requires time and focus. The more we look the more we see, the more we find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the more clearly we can identify the relationship between form and function. We must always give our students ample time to observe and then ask, What Do You See?

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Finding an Arts Collaborator in Your Institution

So, you’ve gotten interest in STEAM, and maybe you’re a STEM faculty member (like me) looking for collaborators in the arts. How does one go about it?

Well, there are several routes that you can try. This post will address collaborations within your institution.

Cover art for the High School Trigonometry Wikibook

Cover art for the High School Trigonometry Wikibook

1. Use Existing Professional Connections   If you’ve been engaged in university-wide, or Arts & Sciences-wide committees or activities, you may know faculty members in departments that include the literary, visual, or performing arts. If you approach them, they may have an interest in collaboration. This route didn’t pan out for me – none of the people I already knew seemed to be intrigued by this type of work. They were each engaged in their own projects and didn’t have an interest in the sciences. STEM can be a tough sell with some artists. Also, I started with few contacts in the arts at my institution.

2. Connect Through Chairpersons  Try to connect to a wider group through department chairpersons. I sent an email about a STEAM workshop to the chairs of departments that engage  in the literary, visual, and performing arts. While I got great attendance from the STEM departments,  plus a fabulous science librarian and an adjunct professor from the School of Education, I didn’t get a single person from those arts-related departments. It was never clear to me whether the announcement reached or went past the chairs. Maybe your experience has been different?

3. Go Higher Up the Administrative Ladder  Deans, provosts and presidents have a bird’s-eye view of their charges. When I spoke to my provost, she directed me to a professor in the Theatre Department. She and I had a great chat and are discussing collaborative possibilities!

4. Take a Detour  Keep in mind the possibility that the arts professors in your school may be better connected to arts institutions than they are to anyone you know. I found a great collaborator in my university’s Art Department through collaborators at the Peabody Essex Museum (www.pem.org). I wonder if I’d find more through the local theater company or a writers’ collective.

Good luck!

Please vote for STEAM at SXSWEdu!

PanelPicker Vote 

The South By Southwest Education Conference Panel Picker is now open! Please click on the image above to vote for a panel on STEAM featuring yours truly with the prestigious Peabody Essex Museum (http://www.pem.org).  SXSWEdu is certainly the most innovative education conference out there. Voting will remain open until September 6, 2013.

Vote because you like this blog, vote to promote STEAM at SXSW, and vote because I’ve always wanted to go to Austin!

Thanks, everyone.  🙂