Giraffe Skulls and Graphite Pencils

Recently comparative anatomy students at Michigan State University found themselves in a room with art graduate students and other members of the community participating in a new series of activities promoting the intersection of arts and sciences. Specimens from the MSU Museum were on loan and displayed for an open drawing session where both artists and scientists could hone their skills in observation and representation. Skulls of a giraffe, rhinoceros, and others combined with study skins and stuffed birds and skeletons to create a macabre scene…or if you are a science nerd, a “haven of coolness.”

photo taken by Terri McElhinny

These are typical sights for a comparative anatomy student, but not necessarily for art students; similarly trying to represent a still life is more in the wheelhouse of the artist than a scientist. However, both groups count observation as one of the primary skills in their respective fields. The question “How can artists and scientists learn from each other to improve their skills?” is the impetus behind a new set of activities being promoted on MSU’s campus. The connection and impacts between art and science has been explored and reported on by MSU’s own Dr. Robert Root Bernstein, where he has explored among other ideas, how arts avocations may foster success in scientists. (Root-Bernstein et al, 2008). 

photo taken by Terri McElhinny

The session was led by Ben Duke, Associate Professor in Art, Art History, and Design, and Terri McElhinny, Associate Professor of Integrative Biology. Dr. McElhinny teaches IBIO 328: Comparative Anatomy and Biology of the Vertebrates, a course that includes a laboratory in which students conduct a comparative study of anatomy by dissecting a lamprey, shark, frog, and cat. She says, “Oftentimes students are laser-focused on recognizing and naming individual structures on their specimens like the orbit of the eye or the zygomatic arch (cheekbone). This event allowed us to step back and spend time appreciating the whole form of a specimen in a different way. Additionally, cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that drawing can enhance learning (Fernandes et al 2018). Participating in this event has me thinking about how to incorporate drawing as part of our lab activities in the future.” 

photo taken by Terri McElhinny

In addition to future drawing sessions, the group has discussed field trips to do nature journaling, working with specialized equipment such as Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) to create artistic images, ‘drawing’ with microbes on petri dishes, and translating microscope views into meaningful images.

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Fernandes, MA, JD Wammes, ME Meade. “The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory”. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27.5 (2018): 302-308.

Root-Bernstein, Robert, et al. “Arts foster scientific success: avocations of nobel, national academy, royal society, and sigma xi members.” Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology 1.2 (2008): 51-63.

photo taken by Terri McElhinny
Posted in STEAMpower Project.