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Science & Art

I have always been interested in both science and art and have continually tried to meld these two interests and have them live in my career and avocations. Because of this straddling between the two, I have explored multiple intersections between science and art over the years. My interests have evolved from using art as a means of altering students experience of science to using art for improving communication of science and finally exploring how artistic and scientific ways of knowing can inform each other. Below I walk through some of the examples of this progression and what I learned or am learning in doing this work.

  • Comics to reduce subject anxiety of science
  • Visual representation in science (coming soon)
  • Drawing to learn science (coming soon)

Comics to reduce subject anxiety of science

cartoon avatar of instructor and sidekick Globie

One of my first attempts at blending science and art came in my teaching of a general education science course. The course was online (back in 2007… a different world). When I asked students to introduce themselves in a discussion forum, one of the questions they were asked was, “Is there anything else we should know about you?” To that fairly general question, I got answers such as

  • “Science is my least favorite subject.”
  • “Science is definitely not one of my best subjects. The concepts are extremely difficult for me to grasp.”
  • “By the way, secretly I HATE science (no offense to the science lovers. It’s just not my cup of tea).”
  • “I’ve always had a tough time with science in the past.”
  • “Science is not my favorite subject nor my strongest one.”

From this fairly innocuous question, students shared some of their feelings about the subject matter we were getting ready to immerse ourselves in. I felt that this was potentially a significant barrier and worked to create an environment where students would not be anxious and more engaged. Students’ past experiences and poor performance in subjects can produce feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness. Students with these emotions are less likely to engage with similar material in the future. This lack of engagement with the discipline equates to a loss of learning.

To combat these fears and anxieties about engaging with science, I created an online course with the help of Dr. Jess Knott, that had a comic book design, with a comic avatar of myself and a sidekick Globie, and “soft” introductions to the weekly topics. Additional non-comic elements reinforced a more informal feel and approachability for the instructor.

Comic showing the instructor and sidekick "Globie" in an informal introduction to interspecific interactions.
“Soft” introduction to the topic of interspecific interactions reinforced feeling of informality and approachability.

When asked to compare this course with their other science courses, students reported increased interest, increased work production, and increased understanding of the material.

62% of students reported more interest in the material for this course than other science courses (8% reported less interest)
Students reported more interest in the material than other science courses they have taken.
62% students reported doing more work than other science courses; 3% reported doing less work than other science courses.
Students reported doing more work than in other science classes they have taken.
59% of students reported understanding material more in this course than other science courses; 5% reported less understanding than other science courses.
Students reported understanding more of the material than other science courses they have taken.

Students were also asked about their attitudes about science (Russell and Hollander, 1975) and the course specifically. I did not see a shift in attitudes towards science from pre to post instruction. However, attitudes about the course were independent from students’ science attitudes, , X2 (1, N=63) = 4.024, p = 0.045. There was also an interesting effect that high and low performing students exhibited significantly different course attitudes (F[2, 60] = 0.38; p < 0.05 ) but exhibited no difference in science attitudes (F[60,2] = 3.63; p = 0.68).

No shift in pre/post survey data in attitudes towards science.
I did not see a shift in attitudes towards science from taking this course.
Students attitudes were more positive for this course than their attitudes about science.
Differences between attitudes of the course and science in general may point to students viewing them as distinct and why the course may not shift general attitudes towards science.

There were many lessons that I learned about the connecting the arts and sciences in this example. One of my fears in talking about this work with my colleagues was the fear that they would see the work as “dumbing down” the content or reducing the rigor. However, I never experienced that feedback, and in fact it won an MSU/AT&T Award for Best Fully Online Course in 2009. But in looking back at this work, it was mostly trying to use the arts to make science more approachable, which although helpful, it does not leverage other powerful aspects of the arts such as skills development, experiential learning, or epistemology. However, even with just this surface integration of the arts, had powerful impacts on student impressions:

  • “I really had a change of heart through this class. Science was a big, boring struggle but this class proved to be fun, relevant, challenging in a good way and interesting.”
  • “Out of all of the science classes I have taken this is the one that I have learned the most out of.”
  • “I would recommend this course to anyone and definitely ask that you do not change the layout of the course, for it really benefited [sic] me and was very fun and interesting to learn from.”
  • “I loved this class! Thank you for making science interesting approachable, and applicable.”
  • “I do not really like science or have any interest in pursuing it further than the required courses I have to take, but I will say, that this is probably one of the best science classes I have ever taken.”
  • “Lastly, I really wish this class met a couple of times, I find myself cracking up with the prof’s sense of humor so that could have been a rewarding experience!”
  • “I am sad its [sic] over!”
Cartoon avatar of instructor with sidekick Globie

Visual representation in science

Carbon cycle with a sample gaze path overlapping showing where an observer looked and for how long.
A redesigned image of the carbon cycle with a sample of a gaze path as captured by an eye tracker.

Drawing to learn science

Red squirrel nest, carbon dust and graphite pencil on clay board.