On Friday, SAS&M network members and other art-science interdisciplinarians descended upon CSU-San Marcos for a one-day meeting hosted by Wendy Silk of UC-Davis and Merryl Goldberg of CSUSM. The format consisted of 20-minute talks intermixed with related but free-flowing conversations. It was a fabulous day aside from the torrential downpour in the afternoon!
After self-introductions, I (Greg) coaxed the group through an exercise covering the basics of amino acids and protein structure via quasi-jazz singing. Using our voices and a one-page handout, we gradually synthesized a 41-amino-acid-long polypeptide illustrating such concepts as disulfide bonds between cysteine residues and phosphorylation of serine, threonine, and tyrosine residues. Diane Ullman, an entomology professor at UC-Davis, said that this gave her new insight into proteins’ histidine tags.
Judit Hersko, a professor of visual and performing arts at CSUSM, discussed a NSF-funded project in which she created art based on a six-week stint in Antarctica. The Antarctica trip included an impromptu experiment with a penguins and a Persian rug which they seemed to regard as “bad ice” until Judit sat on it. She also showed videos summarizing recent K-12 outreach projects in which she was assisted by fellow meeting attendee Christina “Crickett” Vanderwerken. A student project using acids to etch mollusk shells was of special interest for its relevance to the acidification of marine environments.
Ullman and Donna Billick, who specializes in large-scale public art, reviewed the UC-Davis Art/Science Fusion program that they co-founded and co-direct. Having taught many classes where students produce artwork on scientific themes such as entomology, they have developed an approach that they think could be applied to any scientific topic. The general process is one in which the students (1) get out into the field to get hands-on experience and identify subtopics of interest, (2) do traditional library research on the chosen subtopics, (3) decide how to illustrate these subtopics in a visually compelling way, (4) produce the art, and (5) present and reflect upon their creations.
The presentations by Judit, Diane, and Donna prompted Chuck De Leone, a CSUSM physics professor, to remark that art and science come together quite naturally in project-based courses, as opposed to lecture-based ones. Whether the ultimate goal is a novel piece of art or a novel (non-cookbook) experiment, the work is governed by research and logic but also includes a component of simply trying things out and seeing what works.
Ed Price of the CSUSM physics department explained that his interest in combining art and science comes in part from a desire to promote physics as a way of engaging with the world beyond its use in developing high-tech weapons and toys. He summarized two student labs with connections to the arts: one where students build musical instruments and explore the frequencies of the sounds produced, and one where they create stop-action movies based on calculations of the relative positions of moving objects.
Merryl briefly summarized the Developing Reading Education with Arts Methods (DREAM) project, which she co-directs, as an example of how one can perform rigorous assessment of arts-related interventions. In this project, 3rd and 4th grade teachers are trained to use visual and theatre arts to help teach reading. After adjustment of methodology between the first and second year of the program, students taught with arts integration showed dramatic improvement on a standardized English Language Arts (ELA) test.
Jiayi and Shih-Wen Young of American River College talked about art that stems from their respective perspectives as a physicist (Shih-Wen) and a new media artist (Jiayi). Their contributions to the just-concluded “Seeing Sound” exhibit at the Pence Gallery in Davis, CA included a giant camera obscura (similar to a pinhole camera) made mostly out of found cardboard boxes glued together with wheat paste. They explored pi at a 2010 exhibition at the Axis Gallery in Sacramento. This included a meditation room for copying the digits of pi from a book, and “Circling the Square,” a time-based installation in which a metal circle slowly cut through a square block of ice.
Wendy told us how her frustration with students’ boredom with and fear of science content, combined with her sense of music as an uplifting force in her life, led her to create the “Earth, Water, Science and Song” course that she teaches at UC-Davis. She showed two examples of student-written, student-performed songs: California Natives and Breathe. She then encouraged Dave Nachmanoff to share examples of his own collaborative songwriting. Dave performed a song about the moon that elementary school students wrote with his assistance; he also sang the chorus of I’ll Take Care Of You (If You’ll Take Care Of Me) from the UC-Davis Arboretum Oak Discovery Day (the subject of this blog’s very first post).
Finally, CSUSM biologist Betsy Read talked about extra-credit projects that her students have done in her molecular/cell biology course. The original assignment was to write a song parody, but some students now turn in other types of art. Betsy noted that construction of 3D models may be especially informative to students, given that some types of molecules are much easier to understand when represented three-dimensionally.