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Art and Science: Working Together for Student Success

January 23, 2017 8 min read
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Combining science and the arts is a way to spur student innovation, says Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Education Director, Global Oneness Project. She shares why it is important to connect the two as well as examples of projects happening across the country.

Join Cleary for #GlobalEdChat on Twitter this Thursday, January 26 at 8pm Eastern time to gain more insight into STEAM and learn about additional resources and teaching strategies.

By guest blogger Cleary Vaughan-Lee

I recently visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco with my son. In between visits to the living roof, the earthquake exhibit, and the planetarium, we viewed paintings by Andy Warhol. In his signature style of bright colors, Warhol created “Endangered Species” in 1983. The ten screen prints create a collection that depicts endangered animals from around the world, including the black rhinoceros, the African elephant, and the Siberian tiger. These works of art fit right in at such a renowned science museum.

Our experience was a confirmation of the famous statement by American author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov: “There is an art to science, and a science in art; the two are not enemies, but different aspects of the whole.” Consider for a moment the simple pattern of a pinecone or the symmetrical beauty of a sunflower. Many would see these as nature’s art, but they also represent nature’s science, comprised of spirals that reflect the Fibonacci sequence, which has captivated architects, mathematicians, musicians, scientists, and artists for years.

The Arts Matter
Together, art and science in education have the power to spark innovation in students. As John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) wrote, both science and art ask the following big questions: “What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?” These are big, fundamental questions that touch on the integration of creativity, imagination, design, and the evolution of society. This line of inquiry can inspire and motivate students as they navigate their way through our ever-changing global environment.

RISD has championed the STEAM movement and created StemtoSteam. The STEAM movement—integrating the arts into science, technology, engineering, and math—has been gaining momentum over recent years. Why do the arts matter? According to Dr. Jerome Kagan, a research professor of psychology at Harvard University, “Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world.”

Imagination Enhances Science
I have recently been inspired by a number of teachers who integrate environmental science and art in their classrooms. Whether bringing together poetry with observational science or art and music with ecology, these teachers are helping students learn while also expanding their experience of education, culture, and their own daily lives.

Kim Preshoff, a TED Ed Innovative Educator, believes that one of the best ways to reach kids—and for kids to reach their potential—is to offer them choices. Preshoff gives students in her AP environmental science classes at Williamsville North High School in New York the choice to integrate art in their science projects. Some popular projects with her students include creating an environmental board game, an environmental parody of a song, and a recycled art project.

“Imagination can enhance science,” says Preshoff. She believes art can encourage diverse thinking, potentially creating solutions for global problems that may not have been thought of before in the field of science. Along with middle school history teacher Jennifer Hesseltine, she created Global Speed Chat, a worldwide collaboration platform on which students respond to prompts and post their experiences. Students can create a visual representation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or a global poem. Bringing art into the science classroom can help break down learning barriers to create student success.

Overcoming Barriers to Science Learning
“What is it about learning science that is so difficult or challenging that most students choose not to continue taking science beyond the required courses...?” This is a question that University of New Brunswick Professor Karen Sullenger is addressing in her research. She identifies four potential learning barriers to learning science, including: prior experiences (descriptions students may use about the world around them versus those used in science), science language, a lack of “science-as-culture,” and preferred ways of learning, or different learning modalities and styles.

What’s needed, describes former Cornell University President David J. Skorton, is a broader humanistic education that begins in K-12 education but continues beyond. “It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide.” Art, with its source in creativity and ingenuity, can help move beyond these barriers, supporting creative thinking, imagination, and innovation.

Mary Ellen Newport is a proponent of this approach. She is a science and ecology teacher at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a 1200-acre campus in northwest Michigan. The school offers arts education programs for students in grades 3-12 and for adults. Their mission statement describes a dedication to the promotion of world friendship through the universal language of the arts.” Approximately twenty-five percent of Newport’s students are from countries other than the United States, and many are at a pre-professional level of study in the arts, including creative writing, dance, music, motion picture arts, theater, and visual arts.

This year, Newport started her ecology course by asking students to reflect on their relationship with the natural world. One of the simple goals for the year is for students to understand that everything is connected in the northwest backwoods.

During a unit on ornithology, students learned how to use binoculars, identify local birds by sight and sound, and use tech tools for identification. Additionally, they employed “citizen science” to report bird sightings. Newport explained that, for one project, students essentially “adopt” three birds, draw them, and then trace their drawing on shrink art film. When birds on film are shrunk, the colors and anatomy really come alive. Newport described that her goal for this exercise is for students to carefully observe bird anatomy in an engaging way.

Newport requires that her international students bring the ecological issues from their home countries or regions into the classroom. For example, her class learned about particulate pollution in China, the ‘tar sands’ of Canada, and how mangrove forests are threatened in Vietnam by conventional shrimp farming. Newport said, “As trade and communications and environmental problems have brought the world closer together, I cannot imagine teaching my course without addressing global, planetary issues.”

Reaching Hearts and Minds
Another example that merges art and the environment comes from Louisiana elementary school teacher Harriet Maher. She implements the River of Words (ROW) in her classroom, a program that encourages students to explore the natural world through local watersheds. Founded in 1995, ROW is a program at St. Mary’s College in California. Co-founder Pamela Michael explains that the pedagogy is to teach art and science in tandem. The goal, she said, is to reach kids’ hearts, which in turn effectively reaches the hearts and minds of the community.

Maher told me a story of one student who had a very specific memory of walking in a field in West Texas with her grandmother. She drew the scene from memory and then wrote about the experience. The student realized that she did not have the vocabulary to describe the plant that had taken over the field, as she had not seen the plant in her home state of Louisiana. She spent time examining field guides and found it—big bluestem. The name found its way into her poem along with additional details that added authenticity.

Maher explained, “Once the student could name it, she owned it. We saw that kind of investigatory curiosity time and again when students struggled to express important truths about their experiences with the stars, animals, and, of course, bodies of water. The interesting thing, though, was that idea of writing with more specificity became much easier for them to apply in other genres after they saw how it worked in poetry.”

These teachers are bringing the arts into environmental science. But if art and science are different aspects of the whole, as Asimov says, then art has a place in other science courses as well. With its ability to engage the power of creativity and innovation and reflect the most universal experiences of the human and natural world, art might have a role to play in all of our classrooms to build successful global citizenry for the future. Newport sums it up nicely, “In the arts and sciences, interdisciplinarity and collaboration are the way artists and scientists do business. We would do our students a grave disservice if we pretend that disciplinary silos reflect any part of the way arts and sciences proceed in the so-called ‘real world.’”

Connect with Cleary, Global Oneness Project, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Harriet Maher and Cindy Lassalle. “Fish” is by student Emma Warren. “Magnolia” is by student Olivia Faul.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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