High School

Inspiration from Higher Ed: Teaching the Biology of Life with Visual Art and Advanced Architecture*

JMU_Bioscience_mural 300 dpi 10x10Can a building be a cross-curricular teaching tool?  It can if it’s anything like the new Bioscience building at James Madison University (JMU). The Bioscience building offers a 3-story mural that was created by scientists, artists and architects to celebrate their specialities and to engage students to comingle their study of these areas to expand current knowledge and future career paths.

Life was created by Alison Stephen in collaboration with American Society of Plant Biologists member Jon Monroe, professor of Biology at JMU. Alison did research in Monroe’s lab and received her B.S. in Biology from JMU in 1999.  She is now an artist working in New York City. Alison is a living example of the benefits of cross-curricular integration!

The mural is composed of Alison’s sketches of 16 species of organisms around a surface view of about 60 base pairs of DNA. On the first floor are organisms from the earth’s surface or under water, on the second floor are organisms found in a forest canopy, and on the 3rd floor are organisms that fly. The DNA sequence is a portion of a plant gene called AGLU-1 that was cloned and sequenced in the Monroe lab at JMU by a group of undergraduates, including the artist. The sequence illustrated was converted using 3D-DART and  the program Chimera. Alison then used a surface view of the model as a starting point to draw an artistic image of the DNA, depicting the various atoms in five earth-tone colors. Her drawing was then digitized using Illustrator, printed and installed.

Jon said, “Involving undergraduates in research is one of the clear strengths of our department. Many students love it and often go on to enter PhD programs, but some come to realize that research isn’t for them. Allowing students to figure that out for themselves is one of the values of providing undergraduate research opportunities. Alison was a great student but her passion was clearly for art.  We stayed in touch after she graduated so when this opportunity arose, I thought of her first. It was great fun collaborating with her again.”

Jon explained, “The decision to make DNA the centerpice of the mural was made before I became involved, but my desire was to have it be an artistic view of a real molecule. I was okay with the real part, but to make it a work of art I needed Alison’s help. Unlike more traditional depictions of DNA, this one is obviously hand-drawn, and up close it contains detailed shapes and colors that are not predictable from a distance. The mural is not only beautiful, it is also useful. This semester my students are calculating how large this plant would be if it’s DNA was really that large.

The Bioscience building does more than offer a stunning visual display. It also anchors the university’s biologists, chemists and physicists into close proximity.  This automatically increases the opportunity for students and faculty to collaborate on cross-curricular pursuits.

Mark Gabriele, an associate professor of biology design team member, said, “We’ve put an emphasis on the building being a teaching tool itself. So, this new building has a lot of bells and whistles.”

Among the many Bioscience amenities is a green house, a green roof, an environmentally controlled herbarium, modern teaching and research laboratories, a state of the art microscopy lab and an outdoor teaching space.  Of course, the most visibly impressive amenity is the three-story mural called Life that enhances the building’s impact as a learning space from both inside and out.

[*This post is based on original ideas from Jon Monroe and an article from p.19 of http://newsletter.aspb.org/ that he co-authored.]

Cross-Curricular Possibilities for YOUR Students:

View & discuss the deftly designed science & art mash ups:
National Science Foundation – International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge
The Primers & Specials section of www.geitmannlab.org

– Let students convey beautiful details of some aspect of science by designing a feature in your classroom (wall, door, window) or school (hallway, floor, common area). Require sketches or models using computer-assisted software or old-school paper & pencil. Pursue a temporary or permanent installation for a composite project or the top vote-getter presented in class.

– Conduct a scavenger hunt for instructive architecture. Request photographed examples of architecture that teach ‘something.’ Students add their images to a dedicated social media site and/or PPT presentation.  After a set period (1 week-1 semester), prepare a ballot of the options and host an ‘award show’ for various categories of images. Be the photographers prepare thank you speeches that include what they learned from the architecture.

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