Art and Science: Let’s do real integration of ideas

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March 21, 2016 by HCDE Communications


Impressionist Seurat’s “La Parade de Cirque”

Study the science of art and study the art of science. Through his urging, Leonardo da Vinci encourages us to develop our senses and learn how to see, realizing that everything connects to everything else.

During the 15th century, art and science were not the seemingly separate entities that they are in the modern world. In today’s classrooms we’re in a quest to cover as much content as possible. Sometimes academic subjects like science are covered at a superficial level.

Many students see science as a body of facts, when that is far from the truth.  I spent most of my teaching career as a science teacher in a school for the performing arts.  My wonderful, talented students did not see science as something connected to their everyday world.  Thinking science far from interesting, they wanted to know its purpose.

To my students, science was a quantitative discipline, and they were interested in qualitative ideas.

What I yearn for all students to see are the patterns in science and the connections to ideas that they are interested in. I want them to know that knowledge alone is not useful unless it is connected and communicated to the world.

Students need to see that scientists and artists actually have a lot in common: both need to be open-minded, engage in open-ended inquiry and look for patterns and connections. Both artist and scientist need to be passionately curious.

“Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.” –from Scientific American: “STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand”

Collaboration between artistic and scientific thought is powerful. Originality often develops from linking ideas whose connections were not previously suspected.  Integrating science and art is not about making a three-dimensional model of an atom, it is about looking at the big picture.

Do students really understand periodicity of the elements? A better way to start the art-science connection would be to show art to students and let them find and understand the science that is in it.

• A wonderful way to introduce  atomic structure would be for students to look at a print from Alison Haugh called Periodic Table. Instead of numbers and letters, each element on this table gets one white dot for each of its electrons. It is very easy to see the pattern and the periodic nature of the pattern when all of the quantitative data like atomic number and atomic mass are removed. Using art in this fashion is not just a way to visualize science; it is a way to make connections between quantitative and qualitative properties.

• In a similar way, science teachers can use impressionist paintings like Seurat’s “La Parade de Cirque” (1889) to illustrate what science means when we say that light behaves like a particle.

Artist Jim Campbell makes sculpture-video hybrids from grids of LED lights  (  Use some of his images to ask physics students: “Can you explain how this sculpture illustrates the dual nature of light?”  Viewing his piece called “Light Topography Wave” could also help eighth-grade students better understand topographic maps.

• Mark Rothko’s painting in monochromes of yellow  looks similar to the diffusion of reactants and formation of products for the chemical reaction between lead nitrate and potassium iodide:

equationAsking students to look for connections and then describing the connections they see will help teachers determine if students are “seeing the big picture” instead of learning discrete facts. With the increased focus on rigor, activities like these help students think at a deeper level.  Making connections between disciplines allows students to do abstract, strategic thinking as well as extended thinking, the highest level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

I have a Pinterest board, called Spot the Science . I would welcome suggestions of other examples that teachers can use to help students see the interconnectedness of the world around them.  


About the Blogger:

Lisa Felske is curriculum director for science at Harris County Department of Education. Her areas of expertise include integrating science with other disciplines and student misconceptions in science. She enjoys being a Girl Scout leader, reading way past her bedtime, and using the Oxford comma.

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