Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

More Art And Science: The Ecology of an Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

Abby Sarah's picture

More Art and Science: The Ecology of an Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

We like to say that some things are “more art than science” or "more of an art than a science." On the surface, the dichotomy seems clear enough. When we say something is more art than science, what we mean is that it is requires more intuition and less precision.  It’s more left-brained than right-brained. More subjective than objective. More emotional than logical. Despite this persistent belief though, science definitely requires creativity and art all but demands specificity. How does this relate to an ecological curriculum? 

Perhaps it is easier not to define what an “ecological curriculum” is, but to define what it must address. It must address an ever-changing and infinite world, and it must give students realistic tools to operate in that world. Ecology by this definition must transcend disciplinary boundaries. We cannot be ecologically responsible citizens if we think only in the language and methods of a single discipline. This pedagogy attempts to address how to aid students with both theory and skill in multiple disciplines, to prepare them for the rapidly evolving world in which we live. To express this pedagogy, I’ll propose a possible curriculum for college level course focused on the implications of integrating science and art, and on providing solid methods of implementation.

In the presence of an interdisciplinary task so daunting, keeping to a specific metaphor may help: teaching an ecological curriculum is like painting with watercolors. It is a delicate balance between freedom and control. I’ve attempted to model this in my curriculum as questions and projects. The possible units explored in this pedagogy all culminate in or focus on production. Projects may make students groan, but in academic environments where studies tend to focus on the possibilities of thought or action, it is key to not only teach the theory, but to ask for a concrete manifestation of it. In terms of watercolors, some projects may end up a muddy brown smudge, others a delicate landscape, but the effectiveness, and ultimately what makes the act ecological, is in the necessity of solid choice in these projects in the midst of so many ideas.

At the risk of staying afloat too long, let’s touch base with the ground. The theoretical course I’ll be describing is one specifically crafted to look at the intersection of STEM studies and the humanities. These possible units will look not only at how one can represent the other, but will also uncover those ways in which both interact. The imagined make-up of the class is similar to other courses that one might find on a liberal arts campus; it would hopefully draw equally from STEM majors and humanities majors. Here are four possible units, the questions they hope to pose and the production element of each:

Possible Unit 1: Science and Fiction

The inspiration for this unit comes from a class I took at Bryn Mawr called “Geology on Film,” taught by Professor Pedro Marenco. Reaching further than geology and film though, this unit would ask students to look beyond Hollywood to popular fictional forms in general. What representations of science and scientists do we see in science fiction? Do these differ in literary, cinematic and theatrical science fiction? What is scientifically accurate and what is not? When does this matter and when does this not? Could fiction be used to educate? Do writers/actors/directors/producers have obligations to science? This unit would be completed by having students write a science fiction short story or partial screen or stage play. After having asked these questions of the media they and others consume, students then have to make these choices in creating fiction of their own.

Possible Unit 2: Data as an Art Form

Statistics might not sound the most exciting, but this unit would explore the subjectivity of something we imagine as distinctly objective: data. For some, this could review the scientific method, but ultimately the content would focus on how scientists represent data to each other and to the public. What choices are made every day in representing information in tables, charts, graphs, and maps? How can these skew our perspectives? Is there any way to represent data completely objectively? Is the data itself completely objective? Can we use data for artistic expression? What expressions are more persuasive and in what circumstance? The final project for this unit would involve students collecting their own data and presenting it in a meaningful way, but at the same time accepting that they are consciously communicating the data a certain way.

Possible Unit 3: Science Journalism and Environmental Art

If Unit 1 examined the fiction side of things, this unit could be explained as delving into the non-fiction. Environmental art is included in this category, because this unit could also be explained as works with a stronger agenda than those in Unit 1. This unit builds off those written and visual works with a clear intent to communicate something scientific and draw conclusions about it. Here we could ask: what are these conclusions? How do these works present their scientific material? How do they present their case? Who is writing/creating these? Are they writers/artists or scientists? Are they both? In the same vein as the other units so far, this would culminate in an article or work of art communicating/commenting on a particular issue.

Possible Unit 4: Computer Art and Animation

This final unit is a more concrete than the others. It would teach some basics of computer programming, with a final objective of students being able to build a piece of visual art using a new language and problem solving skills. While the other units work from reflections into final projects, this unit would do the opposite. The problem solving and thinking required for computer programming can be frustrating to those unfamiliar with it; to create something as simple a 2D shape requires a different way of envisioning its creation. This type of project can open up new questions: What were the difficulties people faced? Is computer science comparable to other artistic forms? Could you make something artistic out of finite commands? Do you consider what you made art? Are animated films art?

In laying out these units, I realize that I have begun pushing the limits of my personal knowledge on these topics. This only further demonstrates that we live in an infinite world defined by the finite. Perhaps it is time to bring back the metaphor. Painting with watercolors. We can’t contain everything or plan for every scenario, so we teach what skills we can. Make a movie, design a computer program, write an article, plan a curriculum. We push students to move between thought and application, beyond the boundaries of study and discipline. The more we can find solid ways for the ideas and methods of one discipline to interact with the ideas and methods of another, the closer we get to providing students with the appropriate tools to confront a changing world.

Perhaps a single classroom for a semester envisions things too small. Perhaps this pedagogy might work better placed upon an entire educational experience. Liberal arts calls its purpose the interdisciplinary, but too often it limits its definition of the term to simply describe different disciplines working side by side. Perhaps what is needed is a fuller understanding, where these elements meet in the classroom every day. As the world continues to change, it becomes clearer that a discipline is not an island unto itself. Perhaps the only ecological way out is through even greater integration of those which at first glance seem polar opposites. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Abby Sarah—

This is a very ambitious course proposal; I’m a little breathless! Actually? Each one of your units seems a whole course to me—I doubt that students could master (or even do enough to feel satisfied with having experimented with) writing a short piece of science fiction (or a play), presenting meaningful data in a meaningful way, crafting a piece of environmental journalism or art, and building a piece of visual art, via computer programming (gulp!) all within a single semester.

You gesture towards the over-whelming-ness of your proposal @ the very end, where you begin to speculate that a single classroom is “too small” a site for what you want to do, that “perhaps this pedagogy might work better placed upon an entire educational experience.” Remembering that sustainable limits are also ecological values…and that I’m nudging you all not just to have your “head in the clouds,” but also “your feet on the ground”…

I could see you building some strong connections between the units (representing science in fiction seems to me very connected, for example, to using art forms to make data persuasive). I’m wondering, too, about the order of things—might it make more sense to start with “a clear intent to communicate” (which you use characterize environmental journalism), before moving on to the more fictional (or even—dare I say it?) metafictional forms of what is now Unit 1?

Each unit intrigues, however, and makes me want to urge you to explore further (make it more “grounded”). Would you like to select one of these venues for further study?  If so, I might suggest The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories as a resource for Unit 1; GIST: An Exploration of Gender, Information, Science and Technology for Unit 2; Facing the Facts: An Exploration of Non-fictional Prose for Unit 3; and Critical Making as a resource for Unit 4.

I’m puzzled, too, that you didn’t try to make your metaphor visual—it would have been nice to pull in your web reader with an evocative watercolor. Are you familiar with the watercolors of Sharon Burgmayer? (I’ve used her “Unraveling” to preface my comments, as a way of enticing you to make your own work more visual, your own metaphor more accessible.)

Abby, Celeste & Aquamarine –you should check out one another’s work on course design.