Engaging in science through art

February 26, 2013

A photographer captures a moment. An ecologist collects data over the course of many years. The work of each shapes our understanding.

How might our understanding change if the artist and the scientist studied the same subject together? Researchers with Arizona State University’s Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) project, funded by the National Science Foundation, felt this was a collaboration worth pursuing. Dragonflies fly over tall grassy wetland plants Download Full Image

The fruit of this collaboration – and 38 others like it – will be displayed at an upcoming exhibit, "Ecological Reflections," opening Feb. 28, in Arlington, Va., at the National Science Foundation.

Featured in the exhibit is the work of artist Edgar Cardenas, a doctoral student in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

A study of ecological systems

Over the past year, Cardenas has worked closely with CAP LTER scientists at the Tres Rios wetland, part of a wastewater treatment facility constructed by the City of Phoenix.

Researchers study the lush wetland as both a wildlife habitat and an ecological system that naturally filters excessive nutrients from wastewater. Cardenas, meanwhile, explores the place as an artist.

“Understanding ecological processes changes the way we understand a place, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a cultural understanding,” says Cardenas. “We can build a terrarium and watch it change, but we don’t place a value – good or bad, happy or sad – on those changes.

“Questions of what we feel about a place – what it means to be in a place and experience it – are usually asked in the context of arts and humanities,” he continues. Cardenas’ work explores the relationship of people to wilderness and urban spaces, and the place humans have within the particular ecological systems explored by CAP LTER scientists.

Science or art?

Cardenas has photographed the Tres Rios wetland many times. His photos accompanied a news article on the important scientific work happening there. He produced a video that documents the work the scientists are doing.

But “using art to illustrate a scientist’s work is different from an arrangement where both the artist and the scientist are working in their own fields – the artist doing art and the scientist doing science,” says Barry Sparkman, arts and humanities representative for CAP LTER.

Sparkman says scientists are generally enthusiastic about collaborating with artists; they realize the collaboration is a way of engaging people with their work. But “when you work with an artist, the product is unknown,” points out Sparkman, and scientists usually have known products – funding, data, scholarly publications – that are the traditional markers of a successful academic career.

Value in collaboration

A now-retired scientist from another LTER site – Fred Swanson of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest LTER in Oregon – had long recognized the value of artist-scientist collaborations. As retirement approached and he had the leisure to pursue what he wished, Swanson began an effort to formalize an arts and humanities component of the LTER research. For the past several years, Swanson and like-minded LTER colleagues have worked to self-organize – to identify what they are, what their goals are, and how they will move forward.

The work of Swanson and his collaborators has resulted in the "Ecological Reflections" exhibit and a companion website. While funding for the effort is hard to come by, it’s clear that these artist-scientist collaborations are valued. This is the second year the National Science Foundation has included this exhibit as part of its annual mini-symposium on long-term ecological research.

“As artists we can push up against cultural values that are in tension with sustainability in a different way than scientists often approach sustainability,” says Cardenas. “The arts and humanities often show rather than tell; this adds further dimensionality to the discourse and affects the way we respond to place.” And that, he says, might just be a key to helping society understand and respond to science.

Michelle Schwartz

Senior Program Manager, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory


Chi appointed head of ASU's Learning Sciences Institute

February 26, 2013

Professor Michelene Chi has been named director of Arizona State University’s Learning Sciences Institute (LSI), a two-year-old “creation place” where researchers, scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines work together, sharing knowledge and solutions that improve learning and quality of life for people of all ages. Her appointment to lead the institute is effective July 1.

“There’s nothing more critical to our global competitiveness than education,” said University Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Phillips. “Our goal at ASU’s Learning Sciences Institute is to bring all relevant disciplines to bear on the goal of improving learning. Professor Chi is highly collaborative and a nationally known expert in this interdisciplinary field. She is ideally suited to lead LSI.”   Download Full Image

For Chi, a cognitive learning scientist and Foundation Professor in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, the appointment underscores a career spent in interdisciplinary research environments focused on learning and education. Her graduate training at Carnegie Mellon University was supervised by a diverse team of developmental, experimental and cognitive psychologists, including Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon. The interdisciplinary exposure to learning and instruction was reinforced by being a senior scientist for 33 years at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.  

A university-wide initiative, Learning Sciences Institute follows the lead of ASU’s Biodesign Institute and its Global Institute of Sustainability. All three institutes foster interdisciplinary collaboration among ASU researchers and provide support for investigators who conduct externally-funded research. In existence for only two years, the investigators, research professionals and graduate students at LSI focus on learning – the conditions, behaviors and processes that influence it and innovations that can maximize it. It is one of only a handful of major learning sciences research centers in the United States. More information is available at lsi.asu.edu.

Chi’s research is well known in the learning sciences community. Her publications have been cited more than 23,000 times in other scientific papers.

In her research on understanding why students have difficulty learning how to solve physics problems, Chi discovered that beginning students have shallow representation of the problem that mismatches the deep expert representation used as the basis for instruction. This work, published in Cognitive Science in 1981, was declared a “citation classic” in 1993. 

Chi also carried out foundational work on the benefit for students to “self-explain,” that is, to explain instructional materials to themselves as they learn.

“The self-explanation effect drew a great deal of attention and interest because it was so counter-intuitive,” Chi said. “It essentially says that a student can learn without having a teacher explain the instructional materials to him or her. This insight has the potential of transforming the role of teachers from a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’ who provides feedback and support.”

Prompting students to self-explain became one of seven recommendations contained in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2007 teaching guide titled “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning.” Self-explaining was selected as a productive practice because it was supported by a strong level of evidence, the guide notes. The guide is available at ed.gov/practiceguide. Self-explaining is also one of 25 principles of learning recommended by the Association for Psychological Sciences.

Many of Chi’s current research projects are collaborative and interdisciplinary. For example, one project is a collaboration with a materials science engineer professor about enhancing student engagement. Another is a collaborative effort with a computational linguist. The project explores the effectiveness of collecting and synthesizing self-explanations written by students on tablet PCs in the classrooms and uses them as bases to guide teacher discussion questions. 

Chi credits her experiences with interdisciplinary research in the year she spent at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Sciences at Stanford University to have inspired another current project on understanding science concepts as an “emergent” phenomenon.  

She sees the advent of digital learning as driving a whole new era of discovery and advancement in the study of learning sciences.

“The learning sciences field is only 20 years old,” Chi explained. “It’s about how people learn and particularly how they learn complex subjects in authentic settings. But already, the field is at the cusp of a paradigm shift. The new digital media is allowing us to take our discoveries to the next level.

“Ten years ago it was more complicated and expensive to try and implement what was available in technology to promote learning in authentic settings. Now we have tablets, the Internet, online forums and endless other digital media to take advantage of. So now is an especially exciting time to be at LSI.”

Chi is a member of the National Academy of Education, a founding Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society and a recent Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Her recognition and research grants (Institute of Education Sciences, National Science Foundation and Spencer Foundation) reflect the interdisciplinary nature of her research.

At LSI, Chi will be assisted by associate directors James Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and professor in ASU’s Teachers College, and Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert and Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading and Literacy and professor in Teachers College.