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!

 

Getting the Word Out

Here’s a link to a short article by the Engine Institute, Inc. that mentions my presentation at the New England Faculty Development Conference: http://theengineinstitute.org/moving-from-stem-to-steam

"Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4" by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) - Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg.

“Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4” by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) – Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de

I strongly encourage you to check out the work of the Engine Institute, which aims to foster cross-fertilization of art and science in some pretty innovative ways. Their Executive Director is the fabulous China Blue Wong (http://www.chinablueart.com). I hope to feature her here soon.

 

A little more press

Check out page 10 for an article on STEAM in Higher Ed by yours truly: http://www.facultymatters.com/spring14/moving-from-stem-to-steam/

Yes, this blog has taken a bit of an unexpected hiatus. I was tapped to develop a new graduate program and that sucked up all of my blogging time, but I’m back and will start writing regular posts again. Plus, I have sweet STEAM sabbatical coming up in the fall, sure to result in lots of juicy ideas. So, stop by about once a week to see what’s new!

"Chondrus crispus Crouan" by Pierre-Louis Crouan (1798-1871) & Hippolyte-Marie Crouan (1802-1871) - Alguier des frères Crouan, Université de Bourgogne. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chondrus_crispus_Crouan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Chondrus_crispus_Crouan.jpg.

“Chondrus crispus Crouan” by Pierre-Louis Crouan (1798-1871) & Hippolyte-Marie Crouan (1802-1871) – Alguier des frères Crouan, Université de Bourgogne.

Artistic Bacteria

Welcome to my first guest post!  Today we’re hearing from Dr. Amy Sprenkle (https://www.salemstate.edu/academics/schools/1046.php?id=736) from my home institution, Salem State University (https://www.salemstate.edu).

 

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The annual Darwin Festival (http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pkelly/darwin/) coincides with Valentine’s day each year, and I usually invite my microbiology students to create ‘valentines’ by using bacterial cultures that have a macroscopic appearance that is opaque and colorful after growing on an agar plate. This year we shared them at the Darwin Festival.

“But why did you do it?” asked Lisa.

I could come up with many scientific reasons why allowing the students to ‘paint’ with bacteria is a good idea; reminders of the aspects of good aseptic technique, or the study of the interaction of the different cultures as they grow on the plate are just two, but I think the most important reason is that it helps to demystify bacteria, and perhaps break down some ‘germophobe’ walls that have been built in some individuals since childhood. As a microbiologist, I consider germophobes to have a certain lack of intellectual curiosity, and a lack of openness to new ideas, especially in microbiology! Created with Nokia Smart Cam

 

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Thinking of bacteria as a medium of art, rather than germs to be feared and removed at all costs, makes manipulating them a lot less scary. Not being assessed on the success of the project also makes it more fun and less threatening

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(but many students don’t bother to do the valentine because it’s not required). The best thing in being released from the fear of manipulating bacteria is that it gets one thinking about the ways in which we use microbes to our benefit; in food production and agriculture, bioremediation, biotechnology, and most importantly as a part of our resident microbiota that is so crucial to our health.

Created with Nokia Smart CamFinally, the delayed gratification that comes with making light ‘brush strokes’ with a sterile toothpick to place microscopic cells on the growth medium, and then to come in the next day and see that your sketch idea has bloomed into color and completion is one that applies to laboratory science and experimentation in general. Just finding out if you like the fine motor manipulation, the suspense of the wait, and the excitement and surprise of the result is a good thing to learn early in career exploration, no? You can find much more of the same on the web here: http://www.microbialart.com/more/

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