Animating Science: Digital Arts in STEAM Education
By Anna Lindemann Assistant Professor, Digital Media and Design, School of Fine Arts, University of Connecticut
In this article, I will summarize my approach to teaching “Animating Science” and describe some of the student work and learning that emerged from the course. “Animating Science” is a course I designed and taught for the first time in Spring 2017 within the Department of Digital Media and Design (DMD) at the University of Connecticut (UConn). This course is based on the idea that digital media can be used to communicate scientific ideas in new and powerful ways, and scientific ideas, in turn, can inspire new ways of working with digital media. “Animating Science” has the ambitious goal of forging new bridges between different ways of thinking, as well as between departments on campus. Through this article I hope to illuminate one approach to STEAM education that might inform the teaching and learning approaches of others.
So often within STEAM education, the “A” is seen as being in service to STEM. Arts become a means to learn about scientific ideas or to explore scientific ideas in new ways. Rarely does the idea of STEAM education encompass the use of scientific ideas as jumping off points for new artistic creation (even though SciArt communities around the world explore this very kind of interaction between art and science). One of my primary objectives in designing “Animating Science” is to expose students to different ways that scientific and artistic fields (in our case, animation) can come together, with art sometimes in service to science, and science sometimes in service to art. With this in mind, I developed the course around two companion projects: “Project 1 – Communicating Science,” in which students consider how animation can be used effectively to communicate scientific ideas, and “Project 2 – Scientific Poetic,” in which students develop artistic animations that integrate scientific research with fiction and fantasy. Throughout the semester, students also apply this range of STEAM thinking to a third project, “Project 3 – Animating the Natural History Collection,” in which students take inspiration from the unique Carl W. and Marian E. Rettenmeyer Army Ant Guest Collection housed at the University of Connecticut. In the rest of this article, I highlight some of the specific objectives, resulting student work, and student experiences related to each of these three projects.
In Spring 2017, nine DMD majors ranging from sophomores to seniors were enrolled in “Animating Science.” All of the students had at least foundational, if not extensive, experience in animation. No specific prerequisite scientific knowledge was required of students. While the course was designed to align with the “2D Animation & Motion Graphics” concentration within the DMD major, students enrolled in the course are pursuing concentrations within “2D Animation & Motion Graphics,” “3D Animation & Visualization,” “Web Design & Development,” and “Digital Game Design & Development” within the DMD major.
Central to the STEAM education vision of “Animating Science” is close collaboration between the DMD students and scientific experts. The class involved close collaboration between students within the course as well as with a STEM Communication graduate seminar, the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, the UConn Biodiversity Research Collection Facility, and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.
Project 1 – Communicating Science
In order to explore how animation can be used to communicate scientific ideas, students in “Animating Science” worked with graduate STEM students enrolled in a “STEM Communication 2” course to develop a short animation highlighting some aspect of the STEM graduate student’s research for a broad audience. The “STEM Communication 2” course is part of an NSF-funded University of Connecticut initiative aimed at teaching science and engineering students how to successfully communicate technical concepts to non-specialist audiences.
DMD students and STEM graduate students met over the course of six weeks to develop animations from ideas to script to storyboard to rough cuts to final animations. Students strove for final animations that balanced accuracy and accessibility, and that communicated a specific message grounded in science in a clear and engaging way. Through anonymous feedback for the project, one STEM graduate student noted that the collaboration with DMD students “was especially amazing to me because I got to tell my story as a scientist in a way that a larger audience and not just scientists would understand. Working with a non-scientist to convey the story I wanted to tell was hard work, and I now understand the amount of jargon we use daily as scientists. I am really grateful for having had the opportunity to work with the DMD students on the STEM communication animation project.”
Figure 1: “The Pressure is On: Investigating Brain Development and Hydrocephalus” animated by Bridget Smith based on research and a script by Amanda Coletti (watch here: https://vimeo.com/207071963), successfully introduces the audiences to the causes of hydrocephalus and to research that might lead to new and more successful treatments for the brain disorder.
Figure 2: “I Am a Paleontologist” animated by Erin Kaminski and Henry Stein based on research and a script by Jaleigh Pier (watch here: https://vimeo.com/206727265), uses a personal perspective, visual humor, and a recurring visual metaphor of a private detective in order to explain how a paleontologist goes about investigating the causes driving mass extinction on our planet more than 350 million years ago.
Project 2 – Scientific Poetic
In order to explore how science can inspire new genres of animation, students in “Animating Science” created a short animation embracing the “Scientific Poetic,” a term coined by Jean Painlevé, whose films from the 1920s to 1960s use anthropomorphic film titles and narration, and jazz and avant-garde music, in order to transform groundbreaking footage of underwater organisms from conventional documentary films into a kind of poetic fiction.
I encouraged students to combine elements of scientific research with fiction to cultivate a sense of “joyous confusion of the mysterious, the unknown, and the miraculous,” (“Mysteries and Miracles of Nature” by Jean Painlevé, 1931), and a sense of “shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true)” (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of the Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler, 1995). While the intention of “Project 1 – Communicating Science” was to present scientific ideas with simplicity and clarity, the intention of “Project 2 – Scientific Poetic” was to use scientific ideas in sometimes mysterious or ambiguous ways to build wonder, imagine a past or future, or critique an element of science.
Figure 3: “The Big Splash” by Hanna Marchini (watch here: https://vimeo.com/214387603) imagines a web developer controlling the creation of the moon. In Hanna’s project proposal, she described her original concept to “explore how CSS makes such an impact on the world…almost from the perspective of code being the catalyst for the Big Bang.” She ultimately took inspiration from the current favored theory for the creation of the moon called The Big Splash, in which an astronomical body is thought to have collided with Earth, resulting in debris from the collision forming into the moon.
Figure 4: “Gravity” by Shanna Surena-Mattson (watch here: https://vimeo.com/214520094) personifies the ever-present, but also abstract and hard to characterize, force of gravity. In Shanna’s project proposal, she began with an interest in showing how “Nature [is] more alive than people think it can be. The waves have personalities, light has a personality, the wind has a personality, and in this animation they communicate in a way where they can finally speak the words like humans do and from this you can understand why they do some of the things they do.” In her final animation, Shanna ended up focusing on one natural force in greater depth: gravity. Alongside personifying gravity, her animation references important historical figures (Newton, Copernicus, Galileo) who contributed to our contemporary understanding of gravity.
Project 3 – Animating the Natural History Collection
Throughout the semester, in addition to working on two projects intended to orient students to different ways that art and science can intersect, students worked on collaborative motion graphics projects inspired by a natural history collection and the research and scientists behind the collection. With Project 1 and Project 2, students in “Animating Science” each tackled different STEM topics. With Project 3, the whole class took inspiration from the unique Carl W. and Marian E. Rettenmeyer Army Ant Guest Collection (AAGC) housed at the Biodiversity Research Collection Facility at UConn, allowing students to dive more deeply into a particular scientific theme, and learn from each other in the process. A secondary objective of Project 3 was to encourage students to consider the processes behind the scientific ideas they might encounter in textbooks, including the work of field research, lab research, collections preservation, and museum exhibit development.
Students started the semester with a tour of the AAGC. The collection was recently donated to UConn, and an NSF grant was recently awarded for the collection’s preservation. As a result, a university-wide endeavor called AntU has emerged in order to involve a variety of academic disciplines in engaging a broad audience in the wonders of the complex biological systems of army ants and their hundreds of associated species, known as “guests.” After learning about the AAGC, “Animating Science” students pitched project ideas and evolved their project ideas based on input, discussion, and feedback from myself and faculty and staff affiliated with the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History (CSMNH). Three project teams formed after the initial project pitches. The semester culminated with students presenting their projects at an event for the opening reception of an exhibit related to the AAGC, allowing students to share their work with the scientific community. The students’ projects are featured on the AntU website here: http://web.uconn.edu/mnh/antu/antu-animating-science.html
One project team took on the challenge of introducing the biology of army ants and their guests, many of which are mites. The students had the opportunity to take their own Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of mites that are found on army ants, and used these images, along with video and images from the Rettenmeyer collection in their projects. Interestingly, without deliberate planning, both “communicating science” and “scientific poetic” approaches we had examined in Project 1 and Project 2 emerged in the Project 3 work for this group.
Figure 5: “Guests: Hiding in Plain Sight” (watch here: https://vimeo.com/217710351) by Henry Stein takes a “scientific poetic” approach to introducing army ants and their guests through a compilation of fantastical animated SEM images set to music.
Figure 6: “The Many Guests of Army Ants” (watch here: https://vimeo.com/217711002) by Hanna Marchini and Rachel Enzie embraces a “communicating science” approach by introducing details about specific ant guest species.
A second project team took on the challenge of introducing the processes involved in developing a natural history collection and using it for research. They sought out an approach that could be both playful and educational, and developed a video game concept.
Figure 7: “Ant-U Collect” (watch here: https://vimeo.com/216598560) by Nicholas Donati, Neda Ghaderi, and Ben Schultz is a promotional video for a video game concept in which players can select to play as a field researcher collecting ants and their guests, a lab researcher identifying guests amidst piles of ants, or an ant gathering food in a swarm raid.
A third project team took on the challenge of telling the human stories behind a natural history collection. They had the opportunity to interview Marian Rettenmeyer, who, along with her husband Carl Rettenmeyer, created the AAGC collection over more than fifty years of field research. The students edited and animated stories excerpted from the two-hour interview with Marian Rettenmeyer.
Figure 8: “The Discovery” (watch here: https://vimeo.com/217711764), animated by Bridget Smith, tells the story of Marian Rettenmeyer’s discovery of a new species
Figure 9: “Life Lessons from Marian” (watch here: https://vimeo.com/217712656), animated by Erin Kaminski, tells the story of how Marian Rettenmeyer got involved with field research
In feedback given for specific projects, as well as the course as a whole, students enrolled in “Animating Science” noted learning experiences specific to STEAM as well as learning experiences relevant to creative fields more generally. One student shared that the course helped them learn “how to collaborate with people with different viewpoints and ideas.” Another student noted that “the experience of doing a project based around an interview, and creating something that meets a scientific standard were both great experiences.” Another student shared that from the course, they “took away a realization of the relevance of art and storytelling as it applies to science, and a renewed passion for solving creative problems through digital media.”
As both artist and educator, Anna Lindemann is devoted to integrating art and science. Her work combines animation, music, video, and performance to explore the emerging field of Evo Devo (Evolutionary Developmental Biology). She graduated from Yale with a BS in Biology before receiving an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Digital Media and Design Department at University of Connecticut. www.annalindemann.com