Co-Evolving Pedagogies | Szu-Han Ho and Joseph A. Cook

Our motivation for creating this course is to rethink traditional pedagogies in both science and art as wholly distinct from one another. We are interested in creating an environment for the exchange of ideas from both contemporary art and the biological sciences—to combine scientific methods of rigorous inquiry and analysis with artistic invention, criticism, and expansive thinking. Our aim is to encourage active inquiry and engagement with material that is both intellectually demanding and socially relevant.

As collaboration and communication between fields becomes increasingly essential within both scientific research and artistic practice, we see a greater need for interdisciplinary exchange between biologists, artists, historians, anthropologists, and other thinkers to share resources and methods for building collective knowledge. This form of collaboration enables researchers to explore the intersections between cultural history and natural history, to pose new questions, and to address these questions in a way that connects their diverse histories. This course aims to examine how education might begin to bridge the gap between disciplines that are traditionally segregated within academic institutions.

The course is offered to advanced undergraduates and graduate students in biology, studio art, and students from other disciplines. By learning to converse and work closely with peers in other fields, we are tasked to find a common language and thereby to articulate our own ideas more clearly. We hope to promote engagement through discussion, critique, peer presentation, experiential learning, and production through collaboration. These activities take place at various sites: in the field, in the lab, on the web, and in the wider public sphere. We work with the resources surrounding us, including the expertise and facilities of UNM and local field sites. The Museum of Southwestern Biology at UNM is one of the foremost natural history collections worldwide, a dynamic teaching and research museum that houses the largest mammal collection at a university globally.

Image 1: Felisa Smith gives a talk on paleobiogeography in the Museum of Southwestern Biology at UNM

A major theme of the course relates to the use of natural history collections to explore morphology and geographic variation, which can be understood as the relationship of form to place. Collection specimens offer the opportunity to work directly with the visual and tactile senses to understand natural history, evolution, and ecology; this is one of the great advantages of the use of a museum collection in pedagogy. CO-EVOLUTION is part of an effort led by faculty from both UNM Biology and Art & Ecology to connect students to their surrounding bio-geographical, historical, and cultural context through place-based, experiential learning. The state of New Mexico is a confluence of multiple ecological regions and cultural identities, providing important sites for the study of arid ecology, as well as for the layers of cultural production throughout its long history of human inhabitation. As a designated minority-serving and research-extensive institution, UNM has very active faculty and research facilities, and the course offers the chance for students to become familiar with the scope and activity of the UNM research community in areas outside their own field of study.

CO-EVOLUTION is connected and largely supported through a National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network in Undergraduate Biology Education called AIM-UP! (Advancing Integration of Museums into Undergraduate Programs), an international group representing multiple higher education institutions that are working to integrate natural history museum collections and associated web-accessible databases into undergraduate education as a means of rethinking science education. AIM-UP! also supports development of innovative curricula through annual meetings, working groups, and a growing number of teaching (or “dispersion”) modules developed by educators worldwide.

In 2012, CO-EVOLUTION included a weekly seminar web-broadcast to three other institutions with major natural history museums led by associate private investigators: Eileen Lacey at UC Berkeley, Steffi Ickert-Bond at UA Fairbanks, and Scott Edwards at Harvard University. Students from these institutions exchanged ideas through discussion and a digital learning environment. Students at UNM, UCB, and UAF worked on semester-long projects, in which they researched a topic related to one of two themes in the course, drawing on the resources of the natural history collection: “Climate Change” or “Morphology and Geographic Variation.” The projects, called “dispersion modules,” were developed in small collaborative groups with a mix of students from biology, art studio, and other fields and they were intended to enable students to explore and communicate content in a visually engaging, inquiry-driven manner. The final projects took the form of e-books, interactive digital publications designed for online dissemination. Within the parameters of a digital publication, students formulated their investigations utilizing the resources of databases or collections of natural history museums, addressing the following topics: “The Relationship Between Geographic Barriers and Divergence,” “Using Natural History Collections and Art to Communicate about Climate Change,” “The Rock Pocket Mouse Adaption by Natural Selection,” and “Specialized Plant Pollination Systems.” Students at UCB, UAF, and UNM presented ideas, drafts, and feedback to one another throughout the semester. Projects can be viewed on the course blog, under Dispersion Modules:

CO-EVOLUTION also included three intensive workshops led by renowned artists Brandon Ballengée, Suzanne Anker, and Brian Conley. All three visiting artists were invited based on their work integrating biology with themes and practices in contemporary art, ranging from investigations in the history of science to collaborations with biologists in field-based research projects. These artists explore the intersection of the sciences and the arts in highly inventive ways that are compelling and relevant to interdisciplinary education and research. These collaborative workshops created access, dialogue, and artistic production around the role of natural history collections within scientific and cultural debate.

Each visiting artist delivered a lecture at UNM that was free and open to the public and then led a two-day workshop. Students met for twelve to fourteen hours over the course of two days with each artist to explore issues related to art and natural history. The workshops addressed each of the following themes:

  1.  Cataloguing Wonder: recapturing sense-experience in the empirical method
  2. Fluid Taxonomy: on the dynamic practice of classification and the politics of naming
  3. Morphology and Evolution: investigating change in nature and culture

Image 2: Brandon Ballengée leads students in amphibian development lab

Workshop 1: Cataloguing Wonder with Brandon Ballengée

Artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée led the first CO-EVOLUTION workshop in February 2012. Engaging communities with biological science and generating public interest in local biodiversity has been an integral part of Ballengée’s work as both a researcher and an artist. For day one, Ballengée gave a presentation of his work around bio-indicator species, specifically regarding European and North American amphibians. Ballengée, along with Tomas Giermakowski (Museum of Southwestern Biology Collection Manager of Amphibians and Reptiles), led the group in a lab to learn about amphibian development and observation by using museum specimens, dissecting scopes, and taxonomic keys. We learned a method of identifying amphibian development called Gosner staging, which differentiates metamorphic stages through close anatomic study. We also explored methods of observation through drawing, photography, and description.

On day two, we traveled to sites in Albuquerque and Los Lunas, New Mexico; the Los Lunas site has garnered national media attention in recent years for the large number of amphibian specimens found with deformities such as missing or super numeric limbs. With the help of UNM Biology doctoral student Mason Ryan, Ballengée led the group in a morning of collecting specimens from ponds, with the aim of introducing students to the biodiversity in their local environment. Upon returning to the lab, we discussed the ethics of collecting, looked at the collected specimens under microscopes, and debated possible hypotheses for the amphibian deformities. The workshop introduced students to ways of understanding food web relationships and their human impacts on the habitat.

Image 3: Collecting specimens at Talin Supermarket

Workshop 2: Fluid Taxonomy with Suzanne Anker

In March 2012, Suzanne Anker led a workshop on “supermarket DNA,” in which we traveled to an international food market in Albuquerque to discover the diversity of locally available fungi specimens and subsequently learned how to sequence the DNA of those specimens. In both her writing and art practice, Anker’s work has examined the relationship between scientific developments in genetic research and the artistic sphere of production since Modernism. On day one, we took a bus to Talin Market, where we purchased a sample of each type of fresh fungi available. We returned to the mycology lab at UNM to learn about DNA using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and Sanger sequencing methods from Don Natvig, Professor of Biology at UNM. Professor Natvig provided a detailed lecture on the structure of DNA, how PCR works to amplify particular genes, and how to sequence the DNA of fungi. The students, many of whom had never stepped foot in a biology lab, had the opportunity to practice the laboratory procedures required for DNA-based investigations.

On day two, Professor Natvig lectured on the sometimes surprising exchanges between mycology and human cultural production, including the history of the appearance of mushrooms in art imagery. We then returned to the DNA lab to discover that the group had an over 60% success rate in sequencing the different species of supermarket fungi. We learned how to read, access, and interpret nucleotide sequences on GenBank, a massive, publicly accessible online database of DNA sequences contributed to by researchers around the world. In the afternoon, Anker gave a presentation on a history of modern and contemporary artists working with the “cut and paste” methods of collage that parallel or presage current practices in genetic engineering. Students presented their collages and discussed the implications of overlapping practices in art and science.

Image 4: Jon Dunnum uses mammal specimens to highlight evolutionary processes

Workshop 3: Morphology and Evolution with Brian Conley

Artist and educator Brian Conley arrived in April 2012 to lead the third workshop of the CO-EVOLUTION series. Throughout his teaching and artistic practice, Conley has been investigating the overlapping space of scientific episteme, artistic agency, and social communication structures. This workshop was organized around a series of interdisciplinary presentations and short student projects that involved the collections at the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB). The workshop explored ideas from complexity theory that examines interrelated sets of chemical, biological, mathematical, spatial, technological, and social phenomenon. Each of the presentations addressed pattern formation in complex systems, whose elements are in dynamic interaction. On day one, Luis Bettencourt from the Santa Fe Institute gave an introduction to complex systems and patterns with examples from neuroscience, material science, plant anatomy, and urban growth. Felisa Smith, Professor of Biology at UNM, discussed her research in paleobiogeography and using the museum collections to investigate the relationship between climate change and morphological change in mammals. Jon Dunnum, Collection Manager of Mammals at the MSB, showed specimens from the mammal collection to highlight visible evolutionary patterns and relationships found among taxonomic groups. Each student then spent time with the specimens to conceive and develop an art project that might draw from the ideas discussed during the day.

Image 5: Brian Conley and CO-EV students discuss the complex systems in art and biology

On day two, Conley gave a presentation on the diverse approaches by modern and contemporary artists toward engaging scientific content. The talk included selected examples of works by Marcel Duchamp, Dan Zeller, Natalie Jeremijenko, Critical Art Ensemble, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Brian Conley. Students continued working on their pieces before gathering for a roundtable discussion of their works and further possibilities related to thinking through art and biological systems. Conley closed the session with a lecture on potentially applying principles of complexity and self-organizing systems to art production.

As the creators of the CO-EVOLUTION course, our approach to these workshops has been open-ended, allowing for each visiting artist to develop the program according to their own interests and available resources. In many cases, the artists have used the workshop as an opportunity to push their own means of inquiry with the students, in turn affording the students the experience of being a participant in the artists’ own learning process. Being positioned in the midst of this process—rather than as the recipient of already-articulated knowledge in the form of textbooks, published papers, and lectures—has been an important part of representing the research process in art and biology as active, present, and in a continuous state of redefinition. The workshops have created an opportunity to work closely with artists who have developed an in-depth dialogue and engagement with other disciplines, and who are able to reformulate these practices into new questions through art production. The distinct approach of each artist provides an introduction to the many ways that art and biological sciences can inform one another. Students and researchers in science coming into the course have reported being unfamiliar with the ways that contemporary artists engage scientific content; likewise, art students have found themselves in new territories within the lab, field, and scientific discourse. Participants from these diverse backgrounds are part of a mutual process of investigation and experimentation. One of the main challenges of the course has been to develop a common vocabulary amongst a diverse group. Terminology used in both fields commonly carried wide-ranging meanings, e.g. the meanings of site, specimen, data, collection, and research range widely amongst the students and researchers. At the same time, the possibility for one meaning to inform another provides the basis for spirited dialogue, shared knowledge, and productive friction.

Image 6: Project by CO-EVOLUTION student Julia Anderson

We have been committed to allow the discussion of ethical issues, which are often overlooked or given anemic attention in science education, to be addressed as they emerged. The ethics of genetic modification, specimen collection, and anthropogenic climate change were amongst some of the concerns that have surfaced through the workshops and the seminar. These are concerns that scientists, who must carry the mantle of objectivity, often face difficulty in addressing through the given modes of scientific practice. Artistic discourse and practice, while varying widely, contains the space for calling attention to ethical and socio-political urgency, in direct or indirect ways. Throughout the course, the question of audience has surfaced in conversation between both disciplines. While scientific literature for non-specialist audiences does exist, professional literature tends to be specialized and highly opaque to lay readers. Works of art and exhibitions, on the other hand, have the potential to address a more inclusive audience. Of course, the question of who constitutes the audience always exists and is malleable for the artist. For scientists, the social consequences of technological development, urgent environmental crises, and the struggle with political will to confront these crises create a demand for greater public awareness and the dissemination of accurate information. The scientific community is currently under greater pressure by federal granting agencies to make research data more widely available to the public. In the case of natural history museums, this is accomplished through online digital images and databases such as GenBank, VertNet, and Arctos. Artists, not constrained by the formal guidelines of science, can address content armed with the possibility of communicating, questioning, and expanding on scientific knowledge. At the same time, accountability remains vital, and the rigor and precision required by scientists finds its unique translation in art.

Negotiating formal outcomes has been yet another significant and interesting challenge of the course. Scientists, who follow strict guidelines for publishing and communicating the results of their research, often cannot afford to question the form of a product, whether a peer-reviewed paper, a raw data set, or a conference presentation. These guidelines are an integral part of the discourse of science within a global community that produces and shares new knowledge. Artists work to bring new forms of mediation and representation into being. They are tasked to invent their own processes and forms by establishing parameters and by using or ignoring given constraints. Rather than dictating one process as more creative or rigorous than another, we are interested in confronting the challenge of incorporating aspects of form, content, and method from both disciplines in order to ask what each field can contribute to the other. To deny the fact that real differences between these fields exist would be to ignore their divergent histories, objectives, language, and methods. Our aim is to mine the significance behind those differences and to refashion distinctions between forms of knowledge, forms of experience, and forms of inquiry.

Banner image:  Sequencing DNA with Suzanne Anker and Don Natvig in the UNM Mycology Lab

Posted on by admin Posted in Pedagogies, Spring 2013

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