Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interdisciplinary Teaching, Part II

For the past two fall quarters, I have taught Entomology 1, which is an interdisciplinary, art-science fusion class that supplements its lectures with art studios, rather than lab sections. Diane Ullman is the professor of the class and the primary lecturer, although she invites several guest speakers to give lectures on their area of expertise throughout the quarter. The lecture portion of the class covers basic insect biology, including morphology, basic taxonomy, behavior, and communication, but also continually references ways in which insects have influenced human art, culture, agriculture, and technology.

There are three studio sections students can choose to take: ceramics, painting, and textiles. Each studio section incorporates assignments that reinforce students' understanding of insect biology and a final class project that is installed as public art somewhere on campus. I have taught the painting studio the last two years and my students have created educational artwork for the Bohart Museum of Entomology and the Honey Bee Research Facility, both on UCD campus. At the beginning of the quarter I have an idea of the overall structure of the class project, but students ultimately determine the themes represented in their artwork, and the design of their paintings. Perhaps what distinguishes the type of artwork produced by these students is that all images must be scientifically accurate and educational in nature. For example, in 2008 my students were producing artwork to be displayed outside the Bohart Insect Museum. The museum gives tours to large numbers of school children and are primarily concerned with documenting and preserving insect diversity. Based on this, my students chose to represent the diversity of insects found in various California habitats. Because of the museum's emphasis on education, insect morphology in the paintings had to be very accurate, but students controlled the composition of their design and often exaggerated the scale of insects to emphasize their importance.

One of the most exciting aspects of teaching this course is that the content and projects are continuously evolving. Each year we create public art for a new site, thus we must continuously redesign old assignments and adapt the format of class projects to meet new demands. While this maintains excitement on the instructor's end, it also allows more room for student creativity. When I teach the class I am often only a few steps ahead of the students in the design process so they have many opportunities to help me make decisions that directly impact the outcome of the project. In 2009 my students produced artwork for a new honey bee garden that has been installed at the Honey Bee Research Center west of UCD campus. Students knew they would be painting the outside of bee hive boxes, but together we came up with the final plan for how they would be arranged three-dimensionally in the garden. In addition, students chose the themes and specific topics they would represent and created their own sketches for their design.

In my presentation I listed several positive outcomes of using the art-science fusion paradigm of teaching. In particular, this approach:
- encourages creativity
- teaches students an alternative method to communicate ideas
- builds a strong sense of community among students/ between students and UCD campus

I suppose the first two actually refer to the practice of using methods of one discipline to teach another, while the third applies to any class project that makes a connection to the local community. This goes beyond the scope of interdisciplinary teaching per se, and I think it is a powerful way to create a sense of community in the classroom and promote student ownership of, and personal investment in, their education.


  1. Wow! Great post Sarah! I completely agree with your comments about students creating community and ownership surrounding their educations. This is a really interesting class, and I am interested in talking with you in the future about how we can examine the differences between this class and a traditional science class. I wish there were a physics class like this!

  2. Sarah, this is fantastic. I think the sense of ownership your students get over both the artwork and the concepts they have researched behind it is excellent and often lacking from other education. Also seems like a great way to engage creative thinking that's so crucial to both art and science. Makes me think of Ken Robinson's TED talk (ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html)

  3. Cass: I'll definitely be in touch about ways in which we can compare the learning outcomes of students in this class versus other entomology/ science classes.

    Carl: It's funny that you mention Ken Robinson's TED talk. Do you remember watching it in our monte carlo seminar last winter? I came across it just after I finished teaching ENT 1 for the first time and it inspired me to teach the class again and think of ways to improve the creative contribution students were making in the class. I still feel like there is tons of room for improvement, so I'm open to suggestions on how to do this!