Visualization Sparks Movement to Transform STEM Education

Last year a movement to improve the quality of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in the Commonwealth of Virginia began when two colleagues from the Virginia Community College System (NOVA) met over lunch. Rebecca Kamen, Professor of Art, had just received notice that she’d been awarded a Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professorship, which would provide the latitude to test her hypothesis that a link existed between art and science. She wanted to demonstrate that scientific outcomes could be improved by looking at research through an artistic lens. Amy Harris, Director of SySTEMic Solutions, suggested Kamen test her theory by collaborating with Amy VanMeter, Director of the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) at George Mason University (GMU).

The linking concept took root when Kamen realized that both scientists and artists use visualization techniques to depict the invisible. The visualization and depiction processes make communication of their findings possible to a wide range of audiences. One of the greatest challenges scientists face, however, is the ability to effectively describe dynamic data sets. All too often scientists produce static representations of their findings because they have not learned to visualize across multiple dimensions. Specialization further restricts the scientists’ discovery process because their work is frequently compartmentalized within a function and a single institution. Because science students and scientists rarely have the opportunity to interact with experts from other fields of study, they miss critical input from people with other viewpoints and thereby constrain their ability to innovate.

Operating within the scope of a single discipline also hinders the development of intuition—a byproduct of a repeated process of trial and success, trial and failure. Yet, intuition is a critical success factor needed by the scientific community to function at its peak. Kamen’s work creates a new context for modern students and scientists as they learn to visualize how to substantiate their discoveries and capture the essence of what they’ve learned about the invisible world in a new way. A byproduct of Kamen’s approach: Deeper insight as to what might be possible.

Recognizing the limitations artificially imposed on students and scientists spurred Harris to recommend using the ASSIP program as a means to test Kamen’s hypothesis. VanMeter welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Kamen.

Introducing Art to ASSIP

Dr. Lance A. Liotta and Dr. Emanuel F. Petricoin III launched the ASSIP program to advance STEM education in 2007. High school and undergraduate students gain hands-on research experience in the fields of Proteomics, Genomics, Medicine, Neuroscience, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biodefense, Environmental Science, Mathematical Modeling, Computer Science, Bioinformatics, Nanotechnology, Physics and Bioengineering. Competition for admittance is stiff. Only 48 of the 306 applicants made it through the vigorous screening process last year.

Kamen’s request to test her hypothesis aligned directly with the 2011 program theme—creativity and communication. VanMeter developed this theme based on employers’ and students’ most common needs. Students need to be able to apply what they’ve learned to new disciplines and effectively communicate their findings to an assortment of audiences including the executive, the layperson, and the scientist.

Kamen presented a lecture describing the intersection between art and science and then challenged the Aspiring Scientists to create art depicting the findings of their research projects. The process of creative, artistic and scientific thought is the same and this collaboration inspired students to creatively solve complex scientific research problems. At the conclusion of the program participants presented their art and scientific research projects at a professional poster session.

Inspiring the Next Generation

VanMeter asked Richard C. Conti, Director and Chief Wonder Officer of the Science Museum of Virginia if the institution would be interested judging the Aspiring Scientists’ work. Intrigued, Conti asked Frank Heller, the museum’s Manager of Artistic Development, to jury the poster session. Knowing that a team approach would offer a greater appreciation and understanding of the students’ diverse art/science presentations, Heller asked Laura Hughes, graphic designer, and David Hagan, staff scientist, to join him.

“Seeing work that was very well done by people who were not trained as artists but were able to rise to the task when science was the subject matter inspired us,” says Heller. Originally the museum had agreed to exhibit the winning piece. Given the quality of the work produced, the museum requested an opportunity to exhibit all of the students’ artwork in companion with Kamen’s three-dimensional depiction of the Periodic Table, Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden.” Because of the delicate nature of Kamen’s work, the museum chose to exhibit one sculpture in conjunction with enlarged photos of six other pieces from Divining Nature. The exhibit called Making the Invisible, Visible also includes nine small wire sculptures. It runs through August 12, 2012.

“The museum strives to create an enjoyable place for people to experience science. We want the children who come here to question their worlds and learn through the discovery process,” says Heller. “It is somewhat surprising to encounter an art gallery in a museum of hands-on science exhibits. Children are curious as to why the photographs are here. It’s not a landscape. It’s not a flower. What is it? If a child goes home to conduct a Google search for the Periodic Table, Carl Sagan, or Rebecca Kamen, we’ve been successful in piquing his or her scientific curiosity in a very meaningful way,” he concludes.

Validating Art’s Ability to Inform Scientific Visualization

Kamen followed the successful conclusion of the ASSIP experiment with a lecture series to scientists at Harvard University, the National Academy of Science, and the National Institutes of Health. Their acceptance of her work continues to validate that using art as a means to visualize scientific data can improve the way we perform science.

Kamen says, “Leading scientists at these three institutions have inherently understood the link when exposed to artwork connecting these fields in lectures. They feel compelled to explore how they can use cross-disciplinary approaches to improve their problem-solving abilities and advance their own work. As a result of these interactions, two of these institutions have requested collaboration on large-scale projects that bridge their scientists’ work to other disciplines and especially wider audiences. These projects span disciplines as diverse as Astrophysics, Biodiversity, Chemistry, Neuroscience, and Visual Learning.”

Kamen is currently in summer residence at the National Institutes of Health where she’ll challenge interns to view their work through an artistic lens, much like GMU’s ASSIP program. VanMeter has also asked Kamen to inspire Aspiring Scientists in the 2012 ASSIP program. The NIH and ASSIP interns will add a new dimension to the project—sharing insights and experiences cross-institutionally through a shared blog. In all, Kamen has made commitments to participate in 10 collaborative projects that will push her notion that art can inspire and improve the scientific experience (and outcomes) into mainstream educational thinking.

Transforming STEM Education—A Shared Vision for STEAM

What began as a hunch has proven to be a much larger vision Kamen shares with Harris, VanMeter, Heller, and others. They believe that these projects have the power to transform the academic community by making art an integral part of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) education. There’s a natural synergy across programs and campuses that Harris intends to foster.

“What Rebecca is doing is very innovative. With all of the discussion about STEM, it’s surprising that no one has tried this before. Rebecca’s work is at the forefront of discovery,” states Harris.

“SySTEMic Solutions is always trying to find ways to connect the dots for students. We hope to get Rebecca connected with the Pathway students, which will give them another perspective about what they are learning in school—from high school students to NOVA students. We also want to reach out to the K-12 school divisions and work with science and art teachers to use a multidisciplinary approach to bridge the gap early, which will lead to better science,” continues Harris.

Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback received to date, Kamen continues to pursue collaborative work that will lead to a paradigm shift in how STEAM is taught in the Commonwealth. A community of committed proponents is already forming to make the transition feasible. What started as a small vision discussed over lunch one day has turned into a movement that has the potential to make American education (and ultimately American businesses) more competitive.

Through it all Kamen remains very humble. She feels honored that a person without any formal scientific training (yet with a love for science) can impact the broader community to such a large degree. Today, she visualizes how an innovative STEAM Education program can ignite the curiosity in all of us.