Understanding is a lot like sex. It’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.Frank Oppenheimer (as cited in Girod et al., 2002, p. 575)
The concepts of art, beauty, creativity, and passion merging with science are not novel. A large body of literature exists drawing the relationship between science and aesthetics, and many who have committed their careers and their lives to scientific pursuits have a clear understanding of this relationship. Why, then do so many science curricula draw on completely opposite concepts to try to instill scientific knowledge? We teach science by telling pupils to step back from the world and analyze it with cold logic and rigorous methods, and while these are certainly necessary techniques to acquire accurate data, they are by no means the driving force that propels scientific discovery. Great science and world-changing ideas come from those who are immersed in their work, they are passionate about it, and they find many aspects of nature, and even some experiments themselves, beautiful.
So instead of drilling facts and figures and definitions into young minds, how do we teach them that science is beautiful? How do we help them experience the delight of an elegant experiment and beautiful results? Girod et al. provide a few thoughtful suggestions on this in their 2002 publication, “Teaching for Aesthetic Understanding”, which I will explain my interpretation of below:
1. Crafting Content
I find this point to be particularly impactful. It is the idea that science concepts are often taught as content to be learned rather than experiences to relish. Many concepts that we teach and take for granted today were once revolutionary. For example, identifying DNA. Imagine living in a world that did not understand how traits were conserved between beings, and then identifying the physical record that contained individuals’ traits. It’s a pretty revolutionary concept that is often blankly stated in textbooks and classrooms. The first step in creating aesthetic understanding is to reframe existing concepts as the captivating ideas they once were.
2. Crafting Dispositions
This point emphasizes the usefulness of thought experiments for all levels of scientists, and suggests more questions should be asked in a “what if” format to encourage creativity and understanding. For example, “what if this rock could talk?” could be used to trigger a conversation of geological processes in a much more memorable way than simply asking someone to identify a set of geological processes.
3. Emphasis on the artistic Expansion of Perception
This point suggests that teachers should emphasize the concept of “re-seeing” something that the student already knows. Very often, humans see things that they have seen before, and their brains generalize and simplify these images in our head. After walking past a park, someone might say they saw trees, and their minds eye will fill in a generic “tree”. This is a concept often used in intro art classes, wherein the artist must learn to draw what they see, and not what their brain knows they’re seeing. For example, when asked to draw a flower in front of them, many students will default to drawing a cartoon form of a flower they know to represent “flower”, rather than actually drawing the contours their eyes see. This same concept transfers to science – for example, many people know the heart is responsible for pumping blood to the rest of the body….but if we look closely at a real heart, we see there are 4 chambers, and a couple holes between them….what’s all that for? (a curious observer might ask). “Re-seeing” objects stimulates questions and curiosity, and is the initiation of learning.
These are just three starting points for attempting to teach aesthetic understanding, and while the ideas in this blog post aren’t developed enough to replace an entire science curriculum yet, having teachers use techniques in this vein would go a long way in stimulating genuine curiosity and engagement with science.