Thinking About Science + Nature: An Art Teacher's Approach

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I am seeking to expand my Art 1 students’ capacities to collaborate and problem-solve as teams. In addition, I am determined to more deeply implement the practice of Art Integration, as a way of “Teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an artform (while) students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area.” (Kennedy Center's Art Edge). My projects involve a great deal of student choice, student voice (Gallery Walks as forms of Peer Feedback), and mutual respect (collaborative teaming). Students also look to science, history and their own cultural experiences for inspiration.

Box Art About Systems

In the project: Box Art About Systems, students work in teams to create a diorama or tableaux in a box that represents a system with which they are familiar. They look at the work of artists like Joseph Cornell and Betye Saar and learned about the scientific definition of a system  "an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems can consist … of organisms, machines, fundamental particles, galaxies, ideas, and numbers. Systems have boundaries, components, resources, flow, and feedback” (National Academy of Sciences)

Their System Boxes were to emphasize Harmony/Unity as well as Movement/Visual Flow. Their Understanding Goals include:

  • How can I represent and model a system so that it’s both understood and artistically compelling?
  • What are the elements of my system and how can I use found object assemblage to describe it?
  • How does teamwork affect the outcome of an artistic project?

Based on this mutual understanding, the whole class brainstorms examples of familiar systems. Teams of 2-4 people are formed that have to come to an agreement on a system to investigate and represent in their own box art. The piece was to include features of that system (boundaries between what’s inside and outside, component parts, how things work together, etc.).

Once finished, they give their boxes titles and participate in a Gallery Walk in which they comment on each others’ projects, citing specific Principles of Design from a Menu of Compositional Qualities - which students were expected to incorporate in their groups’ System Boxes.


In the end, the systems they chose were more diverse than I could have imagined - a crime scene investigation, cafe culture, a teenager’s bedroom, the city of Paris, the Civil War, as well as a coral reef and the Sonora desert (to name just a few…)

The Natural World as Cultural Metaphor

As we entered March, our next unit on print-making began by looking at the work of Oakland-based artist, Favianna Rodriquez. During and after viewing the KQED Art School video, Printmaking with Favianna Rodriguez, students responded to the following questions in their accordion journals:

  • What does this artist do?
  • What does she care about?
  • What do YOU connect with?

In her video, Rodriguez explains how she is inspired and influenced by Chicano art movement and by features of the natural world.  In particular, we focus on how she discovered and landed on the metaphor of the monarch butterfly in her series “Migration is Beautiful”.

In this project (as in much of my pedagogy and curriculum), I encourage students to examine how the natural world and human culture aren’t as separate as many initially believe. Indeed, many cultural traditions have grown out of humans’ observations and curiosity about nature. Using Linoleum Prints and symbolic color, students incorporate features of the natural world as metaphors for their own culture and cultural values. Students are expected to:

  • Become proficient at relief printing using linocut
  • Incorporate  texture, pattern and color to design a compelling image
  • Communicate symbolically and metaphorically your cultural values
  • Explore and learn about an aspect of the natural world

After a discussion and whole class brainstorm, individual students are asked to choose a subject from nature (animal, forces, plants, etc.) that symbolizes or stands as a metaphor for their own culture and values. Students are provided with resources to help them research that subject - its history, characteristics, etc. They take notes and make sketches about it, and eventually make a finished 6”x6” drawing of that natural symbol, based on photos and/or sketches. Several Elements of Art are at work here: Shape, Line, Value, Color, and Texture . As a goal, the drawing should have clear lines and contrasts in values from light to dark (2-3 areas of distinct tones).

Our Criteria for excellent Nature-Culture Prints include:

  • Content
    • The animal, plant, element must actually exist in nature (sorry, no unicorns!)
    • You should turn in at least three (3) numbered prints
    • Color(s) must have visual power and connection to your natural element & culture.
  • Craftsmanship
    • Clean and careful carving.
    • Neat and legible prints (not smudged or sloppy)
    • Prints should have 3 or more zones of value/tone.

Students are also asked to write write responses to the following reflection prompts:

  • What was your feature from the natural world and how is it a metaphor for your culture or values?
  • What colors did you use and why?
  • Were they symbolic or contribute to the meaning of the piece - if so how?

And, although this project is still in progress as of this blog’s publication date, students are totally invested and their responses are often insightful and endearing:

“I chose a turtle, because I think it’s a calm,happy creature, and it’s printed on blue for the ocean.”
“The shark is printed on red to symbolize blood in the water.”
“The panda is serenity and it’s lazy - like me!”
“I’m a penguin, ‘cause I waddle.”
“I like pandas because they're big and jiggly - like me. The green is for bamboo.”