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Merging Art and Science in the Classroom

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Originally published in Education Week

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 screenprints 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 into 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.

Continue reading the full article on Education Week

Photo courtesy of Harriet Maher and Cindy Lassalle. Student work developed for, "River of Words: Youth Art and Poetry Inspired by the Natural World."

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