The Art of Science Learning

Ideas / by Maywa Montenegro /

It's no secret: American children are behind in math and science, and falling faster by the year. For a group of innovative thinkers gathering in Washington DC, restoring "STEM" in America must go beyond multiplication drills, beyond the latest in computer apps. It's time to re-imagine science learning altogether, they say: it's time for wood and clay, watercolor and chalk.


Ms. Johnson’s 8th graders are gathering for art class. They collect their pastels and charcoals, their graphite sticks and Strathmore sketchpads. But today, instead of the fake-fruit basket that’s been collecting dust since summertime, Ms. Johnson pulls out a biology textbook. “I want you to pick one thing in here to illustrate,” she says. “It can be anything — a chloroplast or a reptile, mitosis or evolution. But here’s the catch: You have to cover up the picture in the book and just use your imagination. What color would your ribosome be? How would you show out-of-Africa? Imagine that you’ve never before seen the double helix…Could you sketch some DNA?”

This scenario may sound far-flung, but it’s just what American school kids need, if you ask the scientists, artists, educators, business leaders, and policy makers gathering this week in Washington DC for The Art of Science Learning. The conference, being held today at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, is the first in a series of hands-on workshops that will explore ways to revitalize flagging US performance in science, technology, engineering, and math — also known as the STEM fields. Instead of thinking purely in terms of technological innovations, these experts believe that infusing some art and design into math and science learning can restore curiosity, energy —and ultimately, performance — to STEM in America. As John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, puts it, “I’ve begun to wonder recently whether STEM needs something to give it some STE(A)M—an ‘A’ for art between the engineering and the math, to ground the bits and bytes in the physical world before us, to lift them up and make them human.”

At Seed, we’ve long been devoted to integrating the arts and the sciences, to probing where the soft edges of craft meet the hard lines of computation. Through our work at we’ve also begun to focus on how data visualizations can help to expand science- and information literacy into exciting new territory — one where well-designed data elucidates unseen connections. So we’ve taken this opportunity to comb back through our archives, looking for the stories, essays, and slideshows that best embody the “Art of Science Learning.” As the conversations unfold this week in DC, we hope you’ll follow along.  And we hope you’ll explore and share the ideas that we’ve gathered here.


On Meaningful Observation

John Maeda

Adding art and design to science education would put a bit of humanity back into the innovation engine and lead to the most meaningful kind of progress.


On Governing by Design

Paola Antonelli

We have only begun to tap into design’s real potential to serve as a tool for policymaking, governance, and social agendas. When used correctly, it can integrate innovation into people’s lives.


Surreal Science

Tim Jones

Tiles in a worldwide sci-art mosaic explore what science means to writers, scientists, school children, and others.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science (SLIDESHOW)
Drawings from science communicator Tim Jones’ worldwide art mosaic that asks scientists, journalists, students, and others what science means to them.


Opera in the Fifth Dimension

Elizabeth Kline

In Hypermusic Prologue, physicist Lisa Randall re-imagines her extradimensional theories of the universe as opera.
Hypermusic Prologue (SLIDESHOW)

See how physicist Lisa Randall brings her theories of an extradimensional universe to the stage.


Dynamic By Design


Jessica Banks and Andrew Laska, the co-founders of the design firm RockPaperRobot, are using science and technology to change the meaning of “furniture.”


The Scent of Design


Commissioned by HEADSPACE, five designers—dubbed “accidental perfumers”—joined bona fide scent experts to explore the intersection of creativity and smell.


The Rorschach Paintings

Vesna Jovanovic

In creating her new series, Pareidolia, artist and chemist Vesna Jovanovic detected biomorphic and medical forms in blots of ink.


Black Peacock, 1950

Courtesy of —Semir Zeki © Christie’s Images/Corbis

The Future of Science…Is Art?

Jonah Lehrer
To answer our most fundamental questions, science needs to find a place for the arts.






Revolutionary Minds: The Interpreters


Drew Berry: Illuminated Manuscripts

Cell biologist and animator Drew Berry is taking biology’s stories — once dominated by simple shapes and predictable tasks — and giving them a visual form that matches the power of the science itself.


Robert Lue: Animated Discussions

Humans are essentially visual animals, capable of gleaning much just by watching the progress of a cell across the microscope stage. But this would not be obvious from the halls of higher education, where visualizations have languished, their power left untapped. There is a constant settling for less, says Robert Lue, the director of life sciences education at Harvard.


Tuajanda Jordan: The Science of Education

Tuajanda Jordan, head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance, is executing a massive experiment: identify promising local initiatives and adapt them to patch holes in the national science curriculum.


Moshe Pritsker: The Video Laboratory

As far as experiments are concerned, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie could be worth millions. To solve this problem, Moshe Pritsker conceived of and cofounded the first peer-reviewed online video journal, JoVE.


Jo Handelsman: Making Mentors

Five years ago, Handelsman, also a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says she became fed up with science’s main pedagogical tool: the lecture, in which information is piped in the direction of inert students. 


Science Blogs: The Art of Science Learning

∎  The Power of the Science Fair
∎  Reasoning versus Imagination?
∎  Helping Students Relate to Science   and Art
∎  Are our youth underperforming in math and science?
∎  Welcome to The Art of Science Learning!
∎  Getting Arts and Humanities Students Hooked on Science


Originally published April 6, 2011

Tags art design education engineering math sciart

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More

Now on

  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine. by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2012 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging |