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Disciplines collide for scientific adventure in Finland

August 13, 2018

New College course combines art and biology to increase science literacy

Cardboard, soda cans, cheesecloth, Christmas lights, duct tape.

Ingredients for a DIY craft project? How about a clever use of otherwise mundane items to test a scientific theory?

Arizona State University students Guillermo Ortiz and Tiffany Gibbs used the assortment for the latter while participating in a study-abroad trip to northern Finland this summer, turning the objects into a makeshift Tullgren funnelA Tullgren funnel is an apparatus used to extract living organisms, particularly arthropods, from samples of soil. to extract microarthropods from samples of Arctic soil in order to better understand how their soil habitat changes with elevation. Later, they used the soil from which the organisms were extracted to create clay representations of them, rescuing the microscopic creatures from myopic obscurity so that one might observe them with the naked eye.

The pair’s decidedly meta experiment was part of a new course offered through the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. BioArt: Sonoran and Arctic Environments, co-taught by Professors Becky Ball, a soil biogeochemist, and Richard Lerman, a sound artist, seeks to increase scientific literacy by providing an opportunity for undergraduates to engage in independent research and communicate it to a wide audience.


The students and faculty of BioArt: Sonoran and Arctic Environments keep bundled up on their excursion to Finland. Photo by Becky Ball

The reason to value scientific literacy is pretty straightforward, according to Ball: “So that you don’t get hoodwinked.”

She’s concerned that American culture has become too accepting of the notion that some people “just don’t get science,” and the ramifications of that thinking.

“If you don’t know how your body works, for example, which is biology, how do you understand what your doctor is telling you? How do you know that you’re getting good advice? How do you vote for politicians based on their science policy if you don’t understand the science?” Ball asked.

And at a time when the internet is the leading source of information, how do you know that Facebook meme isn’t misrepresenting data to serve a particular agenda?

“It makes you very susceptible to believing whatever you’re told, without being able to know whether it’s credible or not,” Ball said. “[Scientific literacy] is incredibly important to being an informed and functional citizen.”

The idea for the BioArt course took root during Lerman’s 2014 residency at the Kilpisjarvi biological research station above the Arctic circle run by the University of Helsinki, in Finland.

An audiophile since childhood, Lerman has been making his own microphones for more than 30 years and attaching them to rocks, trees, credit cards and more to study the sound of various materials. While in Finland, he thought to capture the sound of the environment by placing thin, carbon fiber rods into the snow and ice, then recording the audio emitted through them.

“For me, this is an image of climate change,” Lerman said of the resulting recordings, which at different points sound like anything from a creaking ship to silverware scraping a plate.


Guillermo Ortiz and Tiffany Gibbs make the Tullgren funnels while on their study-abroad program, which blended artistic and scientific pursuits. Photo by Becky Ball

Inspired by the outcome of his unorthodox experiment and enthused by the transdisciplinary conversation it sparked between the artists and scientists at the university, he sought a way to bring similar experiences to his students.

Back at ASU, Lerman recruited Ball, who had plenty of experience working in frigid climates, having carried out much of her soil work in Antarctica, and the two conceived of a course that would bring together science and art students to conduct research and communicate their findings.

“Everyone thinks they’re very different,” Ball said. “That artists are just these flighty people and that scientists are just these boring analytical people, and that if you do art, you can’t do science and vice versa, when in reality they use the same skill sets.”

Scientists, she pointed out, have to be creative in formulating new concepts and theories to test, and artists have to observe, analyze and interpret. The course, Ball and Lerman feel, is a way to teach students that not only can they be all of those things, regardless of their field, but that it’s actually advantageous.

During the first two weeks of the course, the class met at the West campus, where they were introduced to the basics of both science and art, as far as techniques and approaches. Some days students ventured into the Sonoran desert to get experience surveying ecosystems. Then it was off to Finland for two and a half weeks, where they worked in artist-scientist pairs on a variety of projects, from how reindeer diets might change with global warming, to the effects of human activity on bird behavior, to how phytoplankton responds to temperature change.

Ortiz, who hopes to study the effects of human activity on climate change and how to mitigate them, said one of the benefits of working with an artist was being able to consider the subject from a different perspective, which increased his own understanding of the subject.

“Prior to this experience, I had a lot of trouble with identifying microarthropods because I would have trouble paying attention to the details in the morphology of the microarthropod,” he said. “However, working with Tiffany on the art portion has really improved my ability … because of our attention to detail when we designed the microarthropods out of clay.

“Using art to convey science not only allowed for a powerful way to present our work, but our collaboration amongst disciplines improved our creativity and meticulousness within our respective focus.”

As for Gibbs, before BioArt, she had only ever taken one science course, because it was required. Now, she said she would consider taking more.

“I love to experiment and try new things, and I definitely learned more about science from this experience,” she said.

The art pieces that resulted from the student collaborations will be on display at ArtSpace West during the fall semester, beginning in September.

A nontraveling version of BioArt will be offered in spring 2019, and another traveling version will be offered over the summer.

Learn more about the 250-plus study-abroad programs in more than 65 different countries offered at ASU. Visit the Study Abroad Expo from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 22, in the Ventana Ballroom of the Memorial Union to learn more about programs and scholarships.

Top photo: A view of the landscape around the Kilpisjarvi biological research station. Photo by Becky Ball

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ASU journalism students visit the birthplace of golf

August 13, 2018

Cronkite School study-abroad program ventures to Scotland for a Gaelic old time

Fourteen days. Twelve students. Seven cities. One memorable trip, and lots of cool stories. And there was haggis, too … fore everyone.

A dozen students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University recently ventured to Scotland for an immersive study-abroad program that had them studying golf’s roots while honing their journalism skills and learning about a new culture.

“We wanted to create a news operation in a foreign country but also provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity that helps students gain valuable experience while putting something on their resumes that helps set them apart,” said Brett Kurland, director of sports programs at the Cronkite School.

The school is home to immersive professional programs in which students regularly cover professional and intercollegiate sports from bureaus in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Since the Cronkite School announced new sports journalism degrees in 2014, students have covered major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, the Summer Olympics and the NCAA Final Four.

Kurland said it’s the first sports journalism study-abroad program at Cronkite not tied to the Summer Olympics. He said his motivation for creating the trip was to increase the study-abroad opportunities available to sports journalism students beyond the Summer Games, which take place every four years. Cronkite brought students to the Summer Olympics in 2012 and 2016, and Kurland is currently working on a 2020 trip to Tokyo.

“This trip was designed to open the door to international reporting experience for more sports journalism students,” Kurland said, who led the trip along with Cronkite PhD student and faculty associate Gail Rhodes.

The group traveled to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Aberdeen and Gullane to discover golf’s roots and report on the nuances of the game in the country where it was born.

They tried to incorporate as much golf and Scottish culture as possible, including visiting Edinburgh Castle and eating haggis their first night on the town.

“You know, it wasn’t that bad,” said Drake Dunaway, a 24-year-old graduate student. “It gets a bad rap. Pretty much like the American hot dog.”

Other stops included the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews, Glasgow Golf Club, the Royal Burgess Golfing Society, the St. Andrews Golf Company, the Scottish Open, the British Open, and the Old Course at St. Andrews, arguably the most iconic golf course in the world. They also met with the Golf Environment Organization, which pursues sustainability in and through golf, as well as members of the NBC and Golf Channel crew in the 18th tower at the British Open on the Monday of tournament week.  

For this trip, students were required to write or produce one enterprise story or video, and report daily short photo stories that were shared via Instagram. Kurland said the idea was to identify compelling people and sources for each post, which included a quote and a photo to help tell their story. He said the ultimate goal was to capture the entire picture and essence of each location.

“The idea was to find real-life characters and tell their stories,” Kurland said.

Sports journalism major Scotty Gange, 19, said he produced a story in Edinburgh on Bruntsfield Links, located just outside the front door of the Golf Tavern, the oldest golf clubhouse in the world, tracing its roots back to 1456. He said he learned about the two places through an Edinburgh city guide.

“It’s a 36-hole chip and putt course located in the middle of the city near the University of Edinburgh,” Gange said. “You pay five pounds and get a chipping wedge and putter. Students, in groups of usually 20, go there, have beers and play golf. It’s a way for them to relax.”

Gange said he didn’t know much about golf before the trip, but now he has much more respect for the sport and the complexity of filming a major golf tournament.

“With football and basketball, there’s one ball, one field or court,” Gange said. “With a golf open, there’s 144 players, 144 balls all playing in the span of about five hours. Seeing that unfold from a broadcaster’s perspective was eye-opening.”

Dunaway covered a story that has been plaguing golf around the world: How to invigorate the sport with newcomers.

“Memberships are down and the younger generation either doesn’t have the time or money, or would rather spend their money on other things that aren’t as time consuming or cost as much,” Dunaway said. “They are trying to reverse this trend.”

Dunaway visited courses and golf societies that are coming up with initiatives such as shorter courses, playing tee forward, team formation and prizes, no golf fees for players under 18 and speeding up the game.

Student Nicholas Welter took an old-school approach to his story and reported on the manufacturing of wooden clubs at the St. Andrews Golf Company. According to Welter, the manufacturer dates back to 1881 and is the only Scottish company still producing these special clubs, which retail anywhere from 90 to 300 British pounds per club.

“It’s a niche thing and the wooden clubs are made of hickory,” Welter said. “They’re mostly manufactured as collector’s pieces, and players still compete in hickory tournaments throughout the world,” said Welter, a 20-year-old senior.

In addition to Dunaway, Gange and Welter, other student journalists on the trip included Mark Feldman, Carson Field, Logan Huff, Daniel Karl, Madison Kerley, Kynan Martin, Evan Millstein, Katie Thomas and Will Tyrell.

To learn more about the 250-plus study-abroad programs in more than 65 different countries offered at ASU, see the Study Abroad Office websiteVisit the Study Abroad Expo from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 22 in the Ventana Ballroom of the Memorial Union to learn more about programs and scholarships.

Top photo: Cronkite journalism student Madison Kerley tapes a segment for Cronkite News on the Swilken Bridge at the St. Andrews Links golf course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Kerley was one of a dozen students who went to Scotland on a study-abroad program that looked at the birthplace of golf. Photo courtesy of Brett Kurland