Talking to Science Teachers: When Science Inspires Art

by Franke James

On February 12th, I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the 2010 OCDSB/OSSTF Science PD Day. In the audience were Science teachers from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

As I prepared for the talk, I thought back to when I was a high school student — and what my teachers might have done that would have awakened my interest in science. As it was, I took the artistic path and spent years drawing nudes and mulling about the significance of brushstrokes on canvas. The irony is that today, much of my inspiration comes from Science!

pigeon illustration and Ottawa pigeons photo by Franke James

train photo by Franke James

drawing of beaker and photo of Ottawa high school by Franke James

teachers at Ottawa high school, photo by Franke James

Franke James on stage at Ottawa high school, photo by Billiam James

I am an artist and writer. Not a Scientist or a Science teacher. And yet my book, Bothered By My Green Conscience is all about climate change, and how I am personally responding to the challenge. Writing (and illustrating) the book grew out of my strong desire to talk to people about climate change in a way that would really grab their attention  — and move them to action.

In speaking to the teachers, I hoped to show them the fun I was having with Science, and give them ideas they could take into the classroom.

What I’ve discovered (after the experience of writing lengthy blog posts and having them ignored) —  is that I’m at my best when I use words and pictures to tell my “true-life” stories. When I do that, I can capture people’s attention, and really get people thinking about climate change and their response to it.

To support that claim, I cited a review of my book from the Montreal Gazette

“I have a huge pile of recently-published environmental books on my desk, and most of them, quite frankly, are major downers. But I just picked up Bothered by My Green Conscience… and read it cover to cover in one 20-minute sitting. It is a funny, moving, and inspiring read even though it deals with a topic that usually depresses the hell out of me; climate change… Time for a little hope and humor on this issue.” Montreal Gazette Blogs Green life

So how does my storytelling about climate change fit into the larger picture? How can the teachers benefit from hearing that my work is inspired by Science? To put it in perspective, I talked about two books which discuss the current state of Science education in the USA:

1. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future
2. Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style

Franke talked about the crisis in science illiteracy and cited two books as reference

“Don’t Be Such a Scientist” is written by Randy Olson, a former university Science professor and currently a Hollywood filmmaker. He talks about the need for Scientists to be better storytellers — so that the public will understand the importance of Science in their lives. I agree — because they won’t be learning about Science from mainstream media.

In my talk, I emphasized the important role Science teachers have to play in shaping the next generations attitudes toward Science!

So, my big question for the teachers was…

the big question asked by Franke on stage at Ottawa high school

To awaken students curiosity about Science in the world at large, we need to ask students to look inside. What are they feeling and thinking about the world around them? What are they concerned about?

That’s the approach I’ve taken with students. In my talks and at my workshops I ask one simple question, “What’s bothering your green conscience?

Now, you may wonder whether students (and even yourself) have a green conscience. If so, take this little test:

green conscience test

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may be developing a green conscience. Amazing things happened to me when I started listening to mine. Since 2007, I’ve taken action by selling our only car (an SUV), challenged City Hall for the right to build a green driveway — and then built it as a long weekend DIY project.

I believe that almost everyone has a green conscience that bothers them on a daily basis. That little voice saying, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t throw that in the trash, it goes in recycling…’

We may not listen to that voice, but it’s there anyway. Knowing that, I start my workshops by asking students, “What’s bothering your green conscience?

green conscience artwork by Bates College student

What I’ve learned in the workshops is that students today are concerned about many environmental problems: Driving cars when they could have walked or cycled. Buildings that need lights on in the daytime. Water being wasted by taking long showers, etc.

And they wonder what they can do.

Teachers have the opportunity to take that concern and translate it into a rich learning experience. The Green Conscience artwork created by the students can be the springboard. The college student below says, “My green conscience is bothered by my love of long showers.”

green conscience artwork by Bates College student

The student’s concern about wasting water is a great starting point.

We can ask students to expand on their personal concern by quantifying it. For example: How much water is being used in your 15-minute shower? What impact would it make if everyone in your dorm took long showers? What would it take to change your behavior? How would it make you feel? What would your friends and family say?

I used my visual essay, The Beehive and the Hairball, as an example of a fun multi-disciplinary project that teachers could give students. In fact, it sprang from a conversation with a Chemistry teacher/curriculum adviser, Anthony Corvinelli. He has since developed my Green Conscience exercise as a lesson plan for Ontario teachers. It will soon be available as a teacher resource on the Ontario Teachers Federation website. (Read more here: Sparking Your Green Conscience)

Beehive and the Hairball by Franke James

The Beehive and the Hairball came about as a result of something that was bothering MY green conscience: the aluminum foils used when my hair is being highlighted. Creating that essay taught me a lot of things and actually got me “Googling” the ingredient list in hair dye products. I ended up with a much different conclusion than I thought I would….

I bet many students in high school would respond with equal curiosity — but we need to allow them to direct the learning to issues they care about. Because, by getting students to be curious about science — and teaching them how to explore the issues they are concerned about — we’ll be arming them to be more informed, responsible and active citizens.

Just the kind of people we need to build a better world.

Franke James in front of parliament buildings, photo by Billiam James

My green conscience is bothered by…

Following my talk, I gave a Green Conscience workshop. Below are some of the works created in the class by the Ottawa-area teachers.

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by waste. Lots and lots of waste.”

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by all the food that’s wasted.”

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by cars driving everywhere!”

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by asking my students to use so much paper!”

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by flying around the world!”

photo by Franke James

“My green conscience is bothered by pollution in the air and water!”

My green conscience is bothered by bottled water.

photo by    Franke James

What’s bothering YOUR green conscience? And what are YOU going to do about it? Let me know!

Talking to Science Teachers: When Science Inspires Art © 2010, Franke James, MFA
My Green Conscience art workshop © 2007-2010, Franke James, MFA
Collaged artwork by the participating teachers at the OCDSB/OSSTF Science PD Day.

29 Responses: 5 Comments and 24 Tweets

  • vijji says:

    Hi Franke,
    our schools would be amazing if ALL subject teachers were amazing story tellers. And i love the way u do it with pictures!

  • Daharja says:

    My green conscience is bothered by the huge amount of STUFF we have.

    And by seeing ads on TV, and everywhere else, telling me I need to buy more, and that the stuff I have is outdated, worn, unfashionable, or just “not right” any more.

  • Franke James says:

    Thanks Daharja and Vijji!

    I really appreciate your comments.

    Love to hear more about what bothers people’s green conscience — and how we can get students tuned into science!


  • John Burton says:

    Franke, A dynamite presentation. I love the mix of art and science. John Kotter, guru of change theory at Harvard, says that we have to engage heart and mind in order to bring about change and art is not art if doesn’t touch the heart.


    @teachmescience .@frankejames Using art to engage students in scientific questions and thinking is a wonderful approach! Intersecting science and art = fun!

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