Tag Archives: biogeography

Teaching Science with Art


This fall, I’ve been teaching courses at two universities.  One is a biogeography class – the science of plant and animal distributions.  I find myself drawing pictures on the white board to explain concepts.  I’m a visual learner and I know some of my students are too, so I think it’s helpful sometimes.  I do know that some of the silly little pictures help people remember things because, on exams, the students often reproduce the doodles and give the correct answer.  Some students don’t seem to like the drawings at all though.  I wonder if the sketches make the concepts seem too simple or easy or unrefined.  I would rather the students find the concepts easy than struggle, so I keep drawing and try to ignore the little comments I get from students every now and then.  As a side note, when did it become ok to chide your college professor?

The other class I’m teaching is an art class for wildlife science majors.  In the class, the students learn how to illustrate science concepts using a vector illustration software (we chose Inkscape because (1) I know how to use it, (2) it’s free, and (3) it works on all 3 major operating systems).  In the process, they learn the skills they can also apply to creating their own scientific figures for publication.  The benefit to their coursework is that they really need to understand the concepts in order to illustrate it properly.  The end result of the class isn’t a series of diagrams, as you might imagine, but rather richly colored artistic graphic posters.  Through critiquing their classmates’ work the students also have to draw on their knowledge of other concepts to help their classmates refine their work.  It’s been quite the amazing process.  The science aspect of this class is far greater than I anticipated.  In just a few short weeks, the class will be finished and I am really excited to see the end results.

Dance + Science = Fun + Learning

I realize my post title is not longer true once you rearrange the equation, but you get my point.  Science really can be fun and easy when you add an unexpected twist like dance or other forms of art.  That’s sort of the idea behind the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest organized by Gonzo Labs.  Having just finished a dissertation and being a dancer, I really wanted to enter this competition, so I gathered up as many people as I could and made it happen.

One important theme of the dance work that I am involved in is the idea that anyone can dance at any age and even that limited physical ability shouldn’t limit you from expressing yourself through movement.  Given that idea, I didn’t restrict my cast to only dancers.  I ended up with a cast and crew of about 30 men and women ranging from 5 to 80+ years old, some dancers and some not.  The key to success in this situation is that I chose a dance form that anyone can learn quickly, in this case, it was improvisational modern dance.  Simple, repeated movements through space performed en mass are sometimes quite mesmerizing and anyone can do it and look good.

The group also had varying experience with science concepts.  A handful in the crowd have PhDs in a scientific field, some of them work with scientists, some are artists or accountants or philanthropists, and some are kindergarteners.  However, with the exception of me, no one understood my dissertation chapter nearly as well as I did, so everyone needed a science lesson.

Learning how to do the improvisation and the rules behind the movements didn’t take long – maybe 20 minutes.  And all together, the whole filming took less than 3 hours.  The preparation on my part was significantly more than that, but that’s the case with any dance performance.

In the end, I think everyone learned quite a bit both about art and science.  And it was fun!  It was amazing to work with such a diverse group of people on this kind of project.  I am in complete awe of their patience with the process, their willingness to give their time, and of their open hearts in general.  I’d like to do this again some time, but we’ll need to come up with a new science concept to dance.

Here is my entry for the competition (I already know about the typos):

Click here for my research YouTube channel.