Using Art to Jumpstart Science Learning

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 7 years old.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

I was first introduced to the work of Meryl Pataky through KQED’s Art School resource with us as a way to share the work and art practices of local artists.

I was preparing to introduce basic chemistry concepts to my biology students so that we could build on them to a deeper understanding of the types of bonds and how they form in living things. On the day of our first introduction to the basics of the periodic table, I told students I was going to show them a short video clip and that I wanted them to simply write down any science/chemistry related word they recognized as they watched. After the video, each group shared their words and discussed them, looking for similarities and differences. I asked each group to share out a burning question and something that stood out to them as particularly interesting as they watched the video, something that struck them.

And this is where it got interesting. Students asked about Pataki’s art:

  • How does she make the pegboards?
  • What is vertical gardening and what local companies do that?
  • How is it different being a neon artist versus owning a neon sign company?
  • What other art does she do? Where can I see it?
  • Was she a scientist first before doing this art?

Students also immediately began to make connections between their word lists, Meryl’s work, and the very large periodic table in the front of our room that we haven’t looked at deeply in any content related way just yet. Why is neon is called a noble gas? What does it mean to be reactive? What is a patina? Where does the color in the gas tubes come from, why do they happen? Does every element do this?


All of these questions allowed me to transition into a description of periodic table basics such as periods, groups/families, and valence electrons while students pointed at the chart, conferred with each other as they consulted their word list, and added in the knowledge they already had from their own personal previous science experiences. The engagement level was high throughout our discussion in ways I can’t say is typical when talking about the periodic table with younger students. Being able to start with such an engaging catalyst for scientific conversation made this typically dry mini-lecture into a substantive discussion with students guiding the direction of our talk with their group and individual questions. For me as the teacher, this meant I could weave in my essential terms and concepts throughout the conversation in ways that felt connected and casual.

Students left ready to hear more about bonding and how that impacts our body chemistry and the environment and the next day, they remembered more of our discussion than I have seen before even when students took notes or studied my slide presentations. The movie clip stayed with students throughout our unit, with one student referring to the artist’s comment about the resistance of her materials as a source of inspiration and connecting it to the many restraints that govern electron sharing and movement between atoms in bonding.

The class discussion also gave me a window into the unique personalities of each of my classes. One class focused all of their burning questions on the periodic table itself while another class asked questions related to the career paths of science and art and the training needed to transition and connect the two fields. In one class, we had a great side conversation about Pataki’s other works and focused one set she referenced in the video called Rorschach No. 1 and No. 2. Students loved the idea of using hand made natural fiber paper and how she connected these inkblots to scientific themes. Students in this class immediately began asking when we would be doing our next project.

When students lead this type of conversation, they help connect me to ideas and resources, too. I remembered we had gas tubes and spectroscopes in a different part of the science wing at school and I pulled them out to show students the colors of specific elements and describe the activity of electrons as they moved up and down energy levels around atom nuclei. My mind is already swirling with ideas for projects and what’s even more important, my students’ minds are, too.