Bringing science and artistic creativity together in the classroom

By Larissa Williams

I am a new Assistant Professor of Biology at Bates College, a liberal arts college in Maine.  Liberal arts colleges are known for offering (and encouraging) undergraduate students to pursue a well-rounded education that combines creative and rigorous scholarship.  In setting out to teach my first class at Bates, an advanced molecular biology course for juniors and seniors, I wanted to challenge myself to create an assignment that embodied both educational goals, that of rigor and creativity, set forth by the college. Let me tell you, that was a challenge.

As a 2005 graduate of an excellent liberal arts college, I was never asked to be artistically creative in my science classes.  For the most part, upper level science classes are designed to teach and challenge students in a specific subject area and do so by having a laboratory component (most of the time), exams, homework, and a term paper.  While these are necessary and important components of an upper level course (and were a part of my course), I felt the need to challenge students to think outside of the box.

I set up the course thinking about all the activities a scientist does on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly basis: hypothesis-driven lab work, reading and interpreting primary literature, oral presentations, and writing about science.  The third activity, oral presentations, is where I thought the most creativity could be fostered in my classroom.  For scientists, most oral presentations are prepared for audiences at meetings and conferences – a well-educated group of peers in your subject area.  However, the hardest talk I have ever had to give in my career was a “Science Made Public” talk at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).  In the summer, WHOI hosts a series of talks by experts, with the aim of making each speaker’s work accessible to the general public.  In my 2012 talk, I discussed how a little mud minnow (known as a killifish or Fundulus heteroclitus) has adapted to living in heavily polluted estuarine sites along the East coast of the US. I covered genetic variation, pollution, adaptation, molecular biology, and ecology, amongst other topics.  The first, and best question, from the audience came from a 2nd grader—his astute question led me to believe that he actually understood the biology and importance of my science!  He asked me what happened to the other animals living in the polluted environment and whether I expected them to survive as well as the fish I studied?  The reason I was impressed by the question is that he didn’t seem to expect that all things were equally affected by the pollution. While there is a pretty complex biological reason for the expectation that all things are not equally influenced and affected by their environment, it was nice to hear a seven year old ask about it.

Ok — so scientists can, in fact, talk to a broad audience (duh!) — but how do you model this experience in a class of 37 students? I got my inspiration for the class project from the Dartmouth Superfund project, which as part of the Superfund Center’s community outreach included producing a video on the health effects of arsenic in the water.  Video production is intrinsically artistic: from script writing, shot set-up and filming, to editing.  I set forth with the idea that my students would create a 90 second to two minute public service announcement (PSA) on a news story that had a basis in molecular biology.  PSAs are short messages that generally convey important information or facts to the general public.  I left it to the students to pick a story that was compelling to their group and provided structure in the way of deadlines (and a two-page write-up on what a PSA is and why they are important).  Since I am not trained in video production and post-production, I utilized an amazing resource on the Bates campus, that of the Digital Media Center (DMC).  The staff at the DMC provided excellent equipment to my students and also trained and guided the editing process.  Let me jump to the final results first before I discuss the process: it was truly a success both as an education tool as well as a project that satisfied students.  As an educational tool, it taught the students to take a complex issue and make it easily understandable and interesting to a broad audience.  I judged this outcome through a grading rubric which addressed the quality of their storyboard, script, content, and organization.  To determine student satisfaction, I asked students to tell me what their favorite assignment or topic was from the class.  Of the 37 students, about half of them said their favorite assignment was the PSA because it asked them to think creatively and apply their scientific knowledge in a way that had never been asked of them at Bates. 

Now, let me jump back.  Introducing an artistic component into a science course is difficult, and must be thought through.  If you are not trained in the skills that will be utilized by your students, you must have professional support.  This project was not without complaining, stressing, or overall student dissatisfaction at times.  IT WAS TOUGH.  Students were challenged about how to think about complex biology and translate it to a message that was interesting and approachable to the general public.  They also had to learn how to video tape and edit. The journey through a new learning process most likely was the most important aspect of the project, rather than the end product.  As a side note, the students also had to write a term paper on the same topic, utilizing the primary literature as a resource to discuss the topic to an educated audience (aka: me).  Thus, they had to look at one topic from two viewpoints.  Ok, so back to the end.  The students, working in groups of three, put their PSAs on YouTube and we viewed them as a class.  The students and I had a great time watching the work, and some of the PSAs even educated us on topics we had never known about.

At the end of the semester, I asked the students to tell me what their favorite part of the course was.  Overwhelmingly, these science majors most enjoyed the PSA because it was an assignment that they had never been asked to complete during their time at Bates.  Most of them noted that it was especially enlightening to think about science through the lens of a person from the general public.  In fact, many of them said that now they can have discussions about molecular biology more readily with their friends and family after having completed this assignment. So I leave you with some of their videos.  I hope you enjoy them and it sparks your interest in the field of molecular biology.

My students’ PSAs:

Don’t Use Adderral

Influenza Awareness

Breast Cancer




Gene Therapy

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