Put a Little ART in your EARTH Science

David W. Mogk, Dept. Earth Sciences, Montana State University
published Mar 7, 2016

C.P. Snow famously wrote about "The Two Cultures"[1]—that great divide between the sciences and humanities. Snow argued that the inability of scientists/engineers and scholars of the arts/humanities to communicate was a major barrier to addressing the grand challenges that face humanity. Scientists/engineers may be derided on one hand because we do not have instant recall of the "canon" of great works of literature, have not read Foucault or Feyerabend, or are not up to date with post-modern literary theory. On the other hand, how many non-scientists understand the fundamentals of DNA and PCR used as evidence in their favorite CSI television show, understand evolution and natural selection as related to the antibiotics they use, or understand the tenets of plate tectonics and the potential impacts on personal and societal safety (Will Durant: Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.)? But let's not get bogged down in a tit-for-tat about who knows what, and what discipline is more important. I'm here to affirm the importance of integrating the Arts and Humanities in the conduct and teaching of Science and Engineering.

In my career, I have had the opportunity to integrate Art and Science in a number of different ways in my classes, and I have been personally and professionally enriched by the experiences. I certainly have no personal artistic abilities. I never was able to produce more than neo-primitive stick figures in my childhood drawings (even now) and I am color blind. But my life as a scientist has been greatly impacted by my association with my colleagues in the Arts and Humanities in ways that have been fun, revealing, profound and even career-changing. Early in my career I had the opportunity to teach in our Honors Program in a course called Texts and Critics where we explored the topics of Knowledge, Love and Power as represented in the great literary works of our culture (yes, "the canon"). What I learned from my colleagues in the Arts and Humanities is the importance of deep, critical reading of primary texts, and I also learned from the instructional methods practiced by my colleagues to help students find, communicate, and reflect on meaning in these great works. If this pedagogy worked in the Humanities I reasoned, why not in the Sciences? I parlayed these lessons into my first NSF/CCLI grant (see my first blog on How I Got Here Part I–Enlightenment), Teaching Environmental Geology as a Liberal Art and I haven't looked back (see also AAAS, 1990, The Liberal Art of Science[3]).

I then had the opportunity to team teach a course with a colleague from the Photography Department. My colleague and I designed a course called "A View of Earth", in which we teamed equal numbers of students from Earth Sciences and Photography to document the landscape and human impacts in the Upper Missouri River Basin. We took daily field trips to agricultural, mining, timber, watershed, and recreational sites for two weeks. Photography students learned something about how the Earth works, and Earth Science students learned something about technical aspects of photography, the principles of photo composition, and documentary and metaphorical representations. The students then presented a gallery exhibit showing the portfolio of their work in the Student Union Building. For more thoughts on Photography in the Geosciences, see my earlier blog on Through a Lens Darkly, And Then Face to Face, the Cutting Edge module on Geophotography, and visit the amazing web photo galleries of workshop leaders Ellen Bishop, Marli Miller, and Steve Weaver.

In my Mineralogy course, I use Peter Buseck's exercise on From 2D to 3D: Escher Drawings – Crystallography, Crystal Chemistry, and Crystal Defects to demonstrate symmetry and 2-dimensional lattices. At one point I was going to have students create their own tessellations and display these in an in-class art show for extra credit (but I have yet to do this). I also send my students on a "symmetry scavenger hunt" looking for 2-D lattice types and symmetry elements in tile and brick patterns across campus. (They tell me I've "ruined their lives" as once they started to see symmetry, they now see it everywhere. See also Kim Kasten's recent blog on "threshold concepts" in her essay Further Exploration of the Boundary Between Truth and Untruth). Figure 2 shows symmetry elements in Roman tile patterns from the The Oplontis Project; blue squares represent 4-fold axes, pink diads are 2-fold axes and solid lines are mirror planes.

I have also worked with our Film and Television Department to develop a series of video clips on: Teaching Symmetry Using Kinesthetic Learning–An Exercise Using "Old Time" Dances" . The same basic symmetry elements used in these dance forms are exactly the same as those observed in crystal structures. Dancers represent atoms in specific crystallographic sites, and the dance forms represent the basic symmetry operations. The art is both in the content captured in the videos, and in the actual making of the videos. Participation in the dances is a kinesthetic learning experience that has strong affective impacts, as do many other art forms, that contributes to life-long learning. This is a class activity that few forget! Check out the online videos.

I have recently been working with faculty from our Art School on the "Wild Clay" project. We have received samples of native clays and other materials from Native American quarry sites and other deposits from around the world used in ceramics and glazes, and my students have done XRD, SEM/EDS imaging and analysis, and particle size analysis to characterize the clay mineralogy of the raw materials, and the changes to mineralogy and texture (i.e., pyro-metamorphism) of the resulting ceramic products.

Broken columns at Oplontis
Broken columns at Oplontis as a result of the 79AD Mt. Vesiuvius eruption[creative commons]
Provenance: Dave Mogk, Montana State University-Bozeman
Reuse: This item is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ You may reuse this item for non-commercial purposes as long as you provide attribution and offer any derivative works under a similar license.
I am currently working with a group of scholars (including art historians, artists architects, philosophers, and colleagues from other STEM disciplines) from Montana State University on The Oplontis Project—this was a villa in the Bay of Naples that was wiped out along with Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. My students are working with Arts and Architecture students to design and develop the geologic displays for a traveling exhibit that will be displayed at our Museum of the Rockies in June 2016. Most notably, the students have produced a physical model of the Bay of Naples using 3-D printing, and they have created a series of overlays of images of physiography, historical culture, regional geology, the sequence of volcanic events, and modern day habitation in the shadow of this potentially murderous volcano. In the fall, the faculty will be teaching a collection of 12 interdisciplinary courses representing the breadth of disciplines from our Oplontis study group, all of which will use the exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies as a focal point for our instruction. As an outgrowth of this project, I will also be working with our art historian to do some sophisticated analysis of the pigments from frescoes obtained at Oplontis using a variety of sophisticated microbeam methods (SEM, EDS, XPS, AES, ToF-SIMS).

The common thread in all these activities is that the collaborations started with a simple phone call, a cup of coffee, conversation and an interest in sharing a scholarly journey. It just takes a little effort to reach out and find and make a new collegial friend across campus or in the larger academic world. My life, and the experiences of my students, have been greatly enriched by these collaborations. But what are the more global benefits of integrating the Sciences/Engineering with Arts/Humanities?

From a technical point of view, the integration of Art and Science has a well-established scholarly tradition. The February 2016 issue of Elements Magazine is on Earth Sciences for Cultural Heritage. The article by Caro et al., The Earth Sciences From the Perspective of an Art Museum [4] describes the many ways that Earth scientists can work with conservators and curators in conservation, restoration, characterization and establishing the provenance of great works of art. The Earth sciences are well situated to use the fundamental methods of mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry to provide new insights into the materials and processes of Nature that have been transformed into the artifacts of our cultural heritage. And of course, artists of many types (e.g., painters, sculptors, ceramicists, metal smiths) have been adept at creatively integrating all manner of Earth materials, from clay to gems and gold, into their art works.

But there are also sound pedagogical reasons for integrating Art (and Humanities) and Science. There is a growing movement to put the "A" for Art into STEM (e.g., STEM to STEAM). Creativity, application of design principles, innovation, connections via systems thinking, representation of ideas, and communication in numerous media are all central to human advancement. A specific example of the powerful impact of integration of Art and STEM can be found in the work of Robinson and Baxter (2013) who presented a paper at the 120th Annual conference and Exposition of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) on Turning STEM Into STEAM. They argue that "...there is strong motivation for such interdisciplinary study, justified by the increasing awareness of the powerful role that images play as a fundamental format for scientific communication, of how images contribute to the development, communication and popularization of science and engineering, and of how images help build scientific literacy". They emphasize the need to develop a wide range of visualization skills that are common to engineers (and scientists) and artists: the ability to make good and careful observations, attention to topics such as form (shape), structure (e.g., relationships of shapes), scale, patterns, position in 3D space, process and time, compare and contrast, and recognition and refinement of visual cues. Robinson and Baxter state "...there are fundamental parallels between the style and creative thought processes of Engineers (Scientists) and Visual Artists and that these similarities strongly suggest that teaching the foundational concepts of Art, with disciplinary rigor and engineering (science) context, would help improve critical and creative thinking, guide and encourage innovative engineering and visual art; fostering more effective direct and conceptual communication of scientific ideas and advancements". There clearly are cognitive gains to be earned by students through integration of Art/Humanities and Science/Engineering in our instructional practice.

These arguments are congruent with the work on spatial reasoning being done by the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) (e.g., development of spatial rotation skills), and research on learning in the geosciences on Teaching with Visualizations. Mogk and Goodwin (2012)[5] make the case that Earth scientists working in the field rely heavily on creation of representations of Nature (e.g., inscriptions) to enhance meaning and utility: "Field sites are where Nature is initially transferred to culture; i.e. where we begin to make representations based on communally tested and understood practices (e.g. maps, graphs, visualizations) that explain, confirm, and rationalize Earth as we understand it." It is the making of the first inscription that creates the highest cognitive load as the Earth scientist must make critical decisions about what is important, what to emphasize (or neglect) in creating a representation, and how to best make the representation to impart the desired meaning. These are the same basic choices an artist makes when deciding what (and how) to represent on canvas or other constructed physical models.

There has been some opposition to this movement to integrate Art into STEM, with concern that this will distract from the core concepts and skills assigned to Science and Engineering and the needs of the STEM workforce. (We won't even dignify the specious statements made by Marco Rubio about the workforce demand of welders v. philosophers). The New York Times (Feb 21, 2016) ran a headline A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding, a discussion that was picked up in the March 1, 2016 edition of Physics Today in an article New York Times calls attention to the increasing privileging of STEM in academe. I view this as a reactionary response resulting in balkanization and isolation of the STEM disciplines without consideration of the larger context of impacts on the professional development of students and the greater needs of society. In the same Physics Today article, New Yorker author David Denby "...reacted to the Times article by declaring that "this STEM panic may be nonsense. Business leaders have repeatedly said they want to hire people who can think and judge, follow complicated instructions, understand fellow-workers, stand up and talk in a meeting." We have heard the same refrain in the recommendations from the Geoscience Employers Workshop (May 2015) that was convened as part of the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education project. Students need to develop strong communication skills (written, oral, graphical), the ability to work in diverse groups, creativity and design capabilities, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, cultural literacy, and an understanding of global perspectives and societal relevance of their work..

This is not an either/or situation. The fallacy here is in assuming that the addition of some component of Arts/Humanities to the STEM curriculum will somehow diminish mastery and competitiveness in the STEM disciplines, rather than enhance and enrich. Anna Feldman argues, in her essay Steam Rising Why We Need to Put the Arts into STEM Education (e-published in SLATE, June 16, 2015): "The STEAM movement isn't about spending 20 percent less time on science, technology, engineering, and math to make room for art. It's about sparking students' imagination and helping students innovate through hands-on STEM projects. And perhaps most importantly, it's about applying creative thinking and design skills to these STEM projects so that students can imagine a variety of ways to use STEM skills into adulthood". STEM education is impoverished without contributions from the Arts/Humanities.

There are emerging initiatives by professional societies to explicitly explore the intersections of Art and Earth Science. Theme sessions at the 2015 European Geophysical Union Meeting were convened on The Use of Art in Earth Education for a Better Planet Sustainability, and at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting on Integration of Art into Earth Science Education. Susan Eriksson, Kathy Ellins, and Erin Kraal host a blog called Bella Roca that is dedicated to building a community of art and geoscience, and they have also developed a website on Earth and Art as part of the Creative Disturbance project,"...an international, multilingual network and podcast platform supporting collaboration among the arts, sciences, and new technologies communities".

I particularly would like to note that Dr. Alex Navrotsky commissioned a musical work for flute entitled Orchestrations 2: Under Pressure, composed by Timothy Vincent Clark and performed by flautist Betsy Feldman, in association with her 1993 Presidential Address to the Mineralogical Society of America. The title of her address was Repeating Patterns in Mineral Energetics [6], which included numerous phase diagrams to demonstrate patterns in the natural world. From her address: "The musical work is constructed around three interlocking symmetrical structures... We first thought of music designed around pure, almost mathematical or crystalline forms. Bach and Varese quickly came to mind. But then MSA is doing new, now research-why shouldn't it get new, now music as well? We decided it's important, and fun, for MSA to be exposed to the ideas and thinking of other disciplines, and to learn-and in this case, hear-what musicians can do with ideas drawn from mineralogical research." Similarly, on the occasion of their 125th Anniversary, the Geological Society of America commissioned Symphony No 1: Formations by composer Jeffrey Nytch and performed by the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, with evocative movements that represent Orogenies–the upheaval and birth of western North America, Rush—the rapid exploration for geologic resources in the America West, Requiems—reflecting back to the formation of fossil fuels in ancient oceans and coastal swamps, and Majesties—the formation of the modern Rocky Mountains. (I was really privileged to see both premier, live performances!).

But beyond the technical and pedagogical reasons to integrate Art and Science, I think there is a higher, metaphysical need. At the 2008 GSA meeting, I was invited to give a presentation on Human Connections With Earth From the Practical to the Sublime (I can't post the Powerpoint presentation due to copyright restrictions). I provided examples of how human connections to Earth have been engrained in our social fabric following a long tradition of appreciation of the sublime in Nature. This is reflected by the literary contributions of the English Romantic poets (Wordsworth), American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman) and the late 19th Century writings of the emerging preservationist movement (John Muir) and more recently the poets and essayists of the environmental movement (Wallace Stegener, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder); the work of visual artists such as Thomas Moran, Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, or Ansel Adams; and in the musical compositions that represent nature (Johann Strauss' Blue Danube is the obvious example here, but Die Moldau by the Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana is my favorite). The combined work of these artists and humanists help us explore the big questions of what it means to be human, what is our place in the universe? Our colleagues in the Arts and Humanities give us the mirrors or prisms to see ourselves in new perspectives, and perhaps in contexts not previously known to ourselves. The scientific enterprise seeks to reveal the Natural processes, materials, and history that dictate the circumstances of our existence, and engineers apply this knowledge to design and develop systems to make our lives better. The Arts and Humanities provide the philosophical framework for humanity to observe, interpret, and reflect upon our role in the universe. It is at the intersection of the Sciences/Engineering and Arts/Humanities that we can fully realize what it means to be human, what constitutes a meaningful life, and how we can best navigate this wild ride on Spaceship Earth. In my recent work on Geoethics I note that we have traditionally trained geoscientists to understand the Earth system towards the inevitability that we will address: "Yes, we can exploit and/or control Earth." Perhaps it is now time to train geoscientists to also have the wisdom to ask, "But should we?" I think our friends in Arts/Humanities might have something to say about that.

Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank the many colleagues who have accompanied me on this journey of exploration: Saul Benjamin and the Texts and Critics class; Charlotte Trollinger and the View on Earth Class; Dennis Aig and the graduate class in Film and TV production for producing the Symmetry Dance videos; Dean Adams and Josh DeWeese for including me in the Wild Clays project; Regina Gee for including me on the Oplontis Project.

Post Script: The March 4, 2016 New York Times published an article in their Arts section on At M.I.T., Science Embraces a New Chaos Theory: Art. They feature a work of art that is an etching of a castle on a grain of sand using a Focused Ion Beam (FIB). The collaboration between Vik Muniz and Marcello Coelho produced The World's Smallest Sandcastles Built on Individual Grains of Sand. Check it out!


[1] Snow, C.P., 1959, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. London: Cambridge University Press

[2] Brockman, J., The Third Culture Beyond the Scientific Revolution, http://edge.org/documents/ThirdCulture/d-Contents.html

[3] AAAS ,1990, The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/the_liberal_art_of_science.pdf

[4] Caro, F., Basso, E., and Leona, M., 2016, The Earth Sciences From the Perspective of an Art Museum, Elements Magazine, vol. 12 #1, p. 33-38.

[5] Mogk, D., and Goodwin, C., 2012, Learning in the Field: Synthesis of research on thinking and learning in the geosciences. In K. Kastens and C. Manduca (eds), Earth and Mind II A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences, Geol. Soc. Amer. Special Paper 486, pp. 131-161.

[6] Navrotsky, A., 1994, Repeating Patterns in Mineral Energetics, (1993 Presidential Address to the Mineralogical Society of America), American Mineralogist, v. 79 p. 589-605.

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