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GeoEd: Using art in your science teaching and outreach. The why and the how.

GeoEd: Using art in your science teaching and outreach. The why and the how.

This month’s GeoEd post is brought to you by Dr. Mirjam S. Glessmer. Mirjam is a physical oceanographer turned instructional designer. She blogs about her “Adventures in Teaching and Oceanography” and tweets as @meermini. Get in touch if you are interested in talking about teaching and learning in the geosciences!

Sometimes we look for new ways to engage our students or the general public in discussions about our science. Today I would like to suggest we use art! Someone recently told me about her work on “STEAM”, which is STEM+Arts and apparently big on the rise. While I had never heard about it before, and initially found the idea a bit weird and artificial, there are certainly many occasions where thinking about topics in a more comprehensive way than just through disciplinary lenses could be of great benefit, both to get a fuller view of what is going on, as well as to maybe reach people in a different way, and therefore reach people that might not necessarily be interested in either of the parts by itself.

There are many different kinds of art that we can use in STEM teaching and outreach, ranging from art that uses science as its central theme to art that just happens to be displaying something we have a scientific interest in. And while in this blog post “art” is taken to mean visual art, you can think about this much more widely and include music, theatre, anything you can think of! Dream big!

Art that incorporates scientific data

One example of art that uses science as a central theme and that is very well suited for our purposes is the amazing art of Jill Pelto, who communicates scientific research through art. What that means is that she takes graphs of recent dramatic changes in the climate system, like sea level rise or melting glaciers, and uses them in her art as part of the image. For example, a graph of the global average temperature is integrated on the border between a burning forest and the flames leaping into the smoky sky. You’ll only notice it if you look carefully. Similarly, the boundary between the school of clown fish and the forest of anemones moving in the waves, showing the declining ocean pH which threatens this ecosystem (see figure below). Brian Kahn, Senior Science writer for Climate Central, describes Jill Pelto’s paintings as “Trojan horse for science to reach a public that doesn’t necessarily think about data points and models”.

And that is a great approach to using this art. But how else could we use art like this in teaching and outreach?

I could imagine using these kind of images in courses where students are to investigate a scientific topic in a project. Each group of students could be handed a different image, and they could be asked to figure out as much as possible about the topic and present it back to their peers. I would imagine that giving students a data set in such a visually appealing form would provoke an emotional connection and response much more easily than if they were presented with “just” the data. In the final exhibition, the art would work as great eye catchers to lure visitors into a topic.

I could also imagine using Jill Pelto’s art in a science outreach workshop. There, I would ask participating PhD students or scientists to take the one time series (or any other visual representation they have of their data that shows the most important part of their story) and, inspired by the art they saw, integrate their data into an eye-catching display that tells their story for them, which they present to the public at the end of the course.

Wow, this really makes me want to do this for my own research!

Art that visualizes scientific results

The best-known example of art that tells scientific stories is Greg Johnson’s “Climate change science 2013: Haiku“. A poster of all 20 illustrations is up in my office (Thanks, Joke and Torge!) and I can tell you – it is a great conversation starter! The haikus – a traditional form of Japanese poetry – and illustrations provide just enough information to spark curiosity, so I often find myself discussing climate change with my (non-climate scientist) colleagues. Clearly, the haikus would also work as excellent conversation starters in outreach!

Picture from Climate Change Science 2013 Haiku by Dr. Greg Johnson. Credit Sightline Institute, used with permission.

Picture from Climate Change Science 2013 Haiku by Dr. Greg Johnson. Credit Sightline Institute, used with permission.

In teaching, I would use Greg Johnson’s illustrated haikus to break the IPCC report’s summary for policymakers down into its chapters, and hand out one illustration per group. Depending on what kind of students I was teaching, I would either ask them to read the corresponding summaries, or browse the chapter, or read one of the original articles cited in that chapter. I might even ask them to find articles that might shed a different light on the (obviously oversimplified) message of the haikus. What kind of evidence would they want to see to shoot down those messages or in support of it? Those kind of thoughts are a very good practice for their own research where they always need to consider whether the conclusions they draw are the only possible ones. Especially since the illustrations immediately create an emotional involvement with the message of the haiku; this is such an important exercise!

Here, again, the art helps to make very complex science easily approachable, and would again be awesome as an eye catcher in an exhibition where student groups present their work to each other. (If you are worried about all the posters you are supposed to be printing, check out this post for a cheap and easy solution).

The haikus could also be used as inspiration when you ask your students to read articles and summarise them in a haiku plus drawing. This would be great practice to get to the point, and also it would be great practice for outreach. How cool would it be if your students had a piece of art and a short poem summarizing their theses?

For more inspiring illustrations of scientific articles, check out Greg Johnson’s blog. Maybe you’ll find an illustration of the article you were planning to have your students read in their next class?

Art that incidentally shows science we are interested in

Alternatively, take a  look at art that doesn’t explicitly focuses on science as its topic, but which can still be used to discuss science.

One example is given in the TED talk “the unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s `Starry Night´” by Natalya St. Clair, where the painting is deconstructed and put in the context of the development of mathematical theories for turbulence. I have linked the video below and it is totally worth watching!

The video could serve as a great first exposure to turbulence in a physics class and would make for a very interesting assignment in a flipped setting. It could also be watched in art class to help underline that art is a “serious” subject and not just a bit of splashing with paint (or whatever prejudices your audience might have).

Alternatively, you could ask your students to attempt a similar interpretation of a different picture. For example, when talking about different kinds of waves in your oceanography class, ask your students to browse a gallery of famous seaside paintings, online or “for real”, pick one painting and interpret the state of the sea, the shape of the clouds, the color of the light, to learn as much as possible about the weather conditions depicted in the painting. Always interesting, too: Check for consistency of wind direction from all the flags and sails and flying hair!

Alternatively, you could use a collection of pictures to talk about how knowledge in your field developed (for an example of how this could work for soil science, see Laura Roberts-Artal’s blog post).

See – so many ways to include art in your science teaching and outreach to capture new audiences’ interest or just look at your topic from a different angle!

How would you use art in your teaching and outreach? Let us know in the comments below!

By Mirjam S. Glessmer, Coordinator of Teaching Innovation at Hamburg University of Technology

Imaggeo on Mondays: Home Sweet Home

Imaggeo on Mondays: Home Sweet Home

Can you imagine camping atop some of the highest mountains in Europe and waking up to a view of snowcapped peaks, deep valleys and endless blue skies? This paints an idyllic picture; field work definitely takes Earth scientists to some of the most beautiful corners of the planet. But, there often are two sides to one story. Kaspar Merz and André Nuber, researchers at ETH Zurich, who took today’s featured image, no doubt appreciated the wondrous beauty of their surroundings, but also experienced the perils of carrying out research in remote locations first hand. Be prepared to learn about some very interesting geoscience as well as reading about a true fieldwork adventure!

In this picture our basecamp on the Furggwanghorn rock glacier is shown, home to four researchers (Marco Bonamore, Dominik Zbinden and the authors) for almost a week in early spring 2012. From here we conducted geophysical measurements, trying to reveal the internal structure of the permafrost body below our feet.

Located in the Swiss Alps at an altitude of around 2700 masl, this rock glacier lies at the lower limit of the permafrost in the Alps and is therefore highly affected by increasing mean annual surface temperatures. It shows movement rates of up to 4 m/yr and deep crevices open as a result of this deformation.

Researchers from the fields of geophysics, hydrology and geotechnical engineering made an interdisciplinary effort to understand the mechanical principles that govern the behavior of warming, degrading rock glaciers. This knowledge is essential for assessing risks associated with thawing permafrost, like rock fall, landslides and other instabilities.

Field camp for geophysical investigations of permafrost at the Furggwanghorn rock glacier. Credit: André Nuber.

Field camp for geophysical investigations of permafrost at the Furggwanghorn rock glacier. Credit: André Nuber.

With our geophysical measurements we were able to describe the internal structure of the Furggwanghorn rock glacier in great detail. The most fascinating discovery was a shear zone located at around 20m depth below the surface, where almost all of the deformation takes place. This finding was confirmed by inclinometer measurements in boreholes, and lead to a novel rock glacier model. Based on thin-skin tectonics, this model explains the formation of different generations of rock glacier lobes and it can be used as a basis for mechanical modelling of the entire permafrost body and its deformation.

The field campaign got a bit more demanding than intended. Our plan was to stay for two days and one night but a sudden fog made it impossible for the helicopter to pick us up for return. We decided to stay for one more night and ski down to the valley the next morning. But 50 cm of fresh snow did not only make our tent collapse, but it also severely increased the avalanche risk preventing us from skiing down. We therefore had no other choice but to stay until the helicopter could fly again, which was three days later!

By André Nuber and Kaspar Merz researchers at ETH Zurich


If you pre-register for the 2016 General Assembly (Vienna, 17 – 22 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at



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