17 April 2017

Harnessing the communicative power of art in science education

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Farrah Fatemi

An interactive terrarium installation “Metropolis” in the 2015 Rooted in Soil exhibition by Seattle artist Vaughn Bell. Photo credit: Jamie Moncrief.

As a child, I was bathed and cuddled in the warmth of an artistic household– filled with paintings, drawings, and sculptures. From a young age, I began to understand that artists describe and interpret the world around them. In this way, they perform a task quite similar to that of a scientist.

Now with a PhD in forest biogeochemistry, I work at a liberal arts college teaching students with little training in the sciences. In class, I notice the way that my students light up and lean in when I use artistic materials to engage them—either videos, pictures, stories, or music.

My search for science communication tools to sparked a collaboration with my artist mother to co-curate an exhibition in 2015. The Rooted in Soil exhibition at the DePaul University Art Museum showcased works from artists that emphasize our connection to soil and the human impact on resource sustainability. The response from our viewers was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  It was clear that our audience appreciated the chance to connect with scientific and environmental issues through the artistic lens.

Students in the University of Vermont’s Lake Champlain Research Experience for Undergraduates program present artwork inspired by their science research. Photo credit: Farrah Fatemi.

After the exhibition, I began to experiment with directly incorporating art into undergraduate research training. In 2016, I worked with colleagues at the University of Vermont to develop an “Art and Science” workshop for an undergraduate research program (the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program on Lake Champlain). The Art and Science workshop introduced our interns to ways in which art can be used to enhance science communication. Students were also required to submit an art project to display in a small exhibition at the end of their program. From exit interviews with students in the program, nearly all of our interns thought the Art and Science module helped them communicate their science.  One of our interns even commented: “The final (art) exhibit did give me a greater understanding of my peers’ projects… since I now have a visual attached to them”.

I believe that a powerful synergy between art and science can be harnessed to engage a broad audience in environmental and science issues. I encourage other scientists and educators to help dissolve the barriers to science education and literacy through art.

Find out more about integrating art and science from these examples: The Rooted in Soil exhibitionThe Wolf Trap Institute “Dance Your PhD” 2016 contest winnersHubbard Brook’s Water Cycle Visualization Tool

Farrah Fatemi is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Saint Michael’s College, where she teaches and conducts ecological research.