Teaching for True Engagement: Where Art and Science Meet
If you take a walk behind Teel campus, you’ll see several trees marked with colored tape. And depending on the time and day, you’ll see students examining those trees — some with notebooks, some with pads of artist’s paper. Both groups are working on “Branching Out,” a cross-curricular project between biology and art. Part of a larger framework of collaboration among Upper School art, language, and science classes, this project is capturing our students’ attention and teaching them to view the world through multiple lenses.
The fall “Branching Out” project is an opportunity for art and science students to approach the same problem from seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. The idea is for students to observe the changing of leaves, record their observations, and share their findings with one another. Students from both classes observe the same marked branches over a series of several weeks.
As with any good scientific inquiry, this project starts with a hypothesis. The students must create focus questions about the rate of leaf-fall along with a plan for collecting the data:
Do the leaves closer to the trunk fall more quickly than those toward the end?
Does it matter which direction the branch is pointing, north, south, east, or west?
Armed with pencils and waterproof notebooks, for several weeks Mr. Witzel’s biology students record information about the temperature, wind, and humidity along with the number and color of leaves on the branches. Once they’ve collected the data, they create a scatterplot graph to represent the change and use that visualization to make larger observations about this biological process.
With pencils and paper of a different sort, Ms. Carsley’s drawing students also record data about these same branches. Following a similar method as the biology students, her art students draw a series sketches of the branches as they change over time. Although they are recording similar information, their focus is on visual detail rather than data. Their goal is to train their eyes to see changes in shape, form, and texture, and to practice drawing skills to communicate those changes in a culminating piece of art.
For Ms. Carsley’s art students, this is an exercise in observational drawing — drawing from real objects seen in person. For Mr. Witzel’s biology students, it’s an exercise in the scientific method — forming a hypothesis and analyzing data to evaluate assumptions. For both classes, it’s a valuable exploration of how to view and record natural events over time.
“In education, we have a tendency to compartmentalize too much. We get bogged down with, for example, thinking only like a mathematician, only like a biologist, or only like an artist. They are all equally valuable ways of understanding, they are just different. I don’t believe that biology is more important than art … or vice versa. I think if you can approach something from different vantage points, you’ll be a more educated person. That’s the lesson we want our students to learn.” — Mr. Eric Witzel
The Bigger Picture
This project is part of an ongoing program of collaboration among Severn Upper School’s art, science, and language classes. Close to ten years ago, Severn sponsored Ms. Carsley, Mr. Witzel and former English department chair Mr. Tom Worthington in Harvard’s Teaching for Understanding certificate program through the Graduate School of Education. Their focus was to work across disciplines to create lessons that get students truly engaged in the subject matter. This has developed into a robust series of cross-curricular projects, growing each year. Ms. Carsley, Mr. Witzel and current English department chair Ms. Sandy Sanders make it a priority to create projects for our students that break the barriers of traditional “siloed” classes and foster a holistic view of problem-solving in our world.
“I think what we’re really looking for with the students is true engagement. We want them to see the value in their work, make connections to other disciplines, and recognize skills they can use to communicate their ideas regardless of the medium. Some students may not want to be scientists or artists, but through this work they see the value of skills they can develop through any method. It’s more than finding their passion, it’s finding true engagement.” — Ms. Carsley
Other collaborative projects include:
Pen and Ink: students study the invasive species phragmites and used them to make traditional pens with homemade black walnut ink.
Adopt-a-Bud: companion project to Branching Out, students follow a similar method to track the bud growth rate of trees.
The Visual and Written Narrative: students learn how to “read” the narrative of a painting and study the structure of narrative essays focusing on elements of voice, perspective and cultural details.
The Poet and Painter Project: students create books using the nature on display at the National Arboretum as inspiration for drawings and poetry.
Ms. Carsley, Ms. Sanders and Mr. Witzel are currently developing new projects for the coming year including “Encountering Animals: studies in form and texture and how it relates to the environment.”
It Takes a Village
Severn’s educational philosophy states that we “believe in educating the whole person in a student-centered, supportive educational community that values the dignity, self-worth, and potential of each individual.” Ms. Carsley, Ms. Sanders and Mr. Witzel embrace the notion of community through this type of teaching. And that community doesn’t stop at our doors. All three teachers prepared a presentation for the Maryland Art Education Association Conference this past October. Mr. Witzel and Ms. Carsley spoke at the conference to share their processes, what they’ve learned so far, and techniques for accomplishing this type of collaboration in a variety of settings with different access to resources.
Our world doesn’t exist in neat little boxes. It’s a puzzle of interconnected pieces that grow and change dependent on one another. To succeed in this world, our students need to recognize and understand those connections in explicit ways. Upper School teachers Mr. Witzel, Ms. Carsley and Ms. Sanders embrace this spirit of collaboration and infuse their teaching with energy that is contagious. Through that energy, our students learn to make decisions, think critically and creatively, and synthesize knowledge beyond the disciplines.