The Big Picture: Art and Science

IMG_5448Close your eyes and picture a typical scientist.  Now imagine an artist.  You probably conjured up two very different images.  But the truth is that artists and scientists have more in common than most of us may think.   There is art in science and science in art.  What seem like contrasting disciplines are actually quite closely related to each other.  In that vein, for the past two Fridays Boston Children’s Museum has played host to “The Big Picture,” a project funded through FOCUS (Forest, Oceans, Climate, and Us), a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the Wyland Foundation. The Big Picture merges hands-on art with environmental literacy through a series of large mural projects in which children and families create art alongside some amazing local artists, all inspired by the environment around us.  It’s science meets art meets the great outdoors.

Matching art with science might seem like a strange combination, but for us the two worlds have always been intertwined.  Artistic expression can be a gateway to science discovery (and vice versa), because both disciplines share many of the same characteristics.  Many of the same skills that artists use – observing, estimating, comparing, measuring, using tools and more – are skills that scientists use as well.  And a child who is artistically inclined likely has a natural predisposition to these skills inherent to science discovery…but maybe doesn’t even realize it.

Science is not often thought of as an expressive act.  But the truth is that “doing science”, like “doing art”, is an active process.  We often think of science as passive – as the rote memorization of facts.  But in reality, scientists are doers, not memorizers.  Facts help them to understand their discoveries and to guide their questions, but the most important quality of a scientist is not how much they have memorized, but how much they can do, create and discover.

Good scientists notice things, ask thoughtful questions, and maintain the curiosity to try and to uncover.  Artists do too.  Artists notice things, observe the world, and create work based on their observations and perspective.  Artists try things out and see where it takes them.  Sometimes they are taken in unexpected directions that surprise even them.  Scientists often find themselves similarly surprised.

Just like at Boston Children’s Museum, you can foster these science and art skills at home with your children.  By focusing on observing the world around you, on noticing changes and nurturing a sense of wonder, you can help your child to grow as an artist and a scientist at the same time.  Spend some time outside with your child, some paper, and a pencil or crayons looking for insects, interesting plants or flowers and other natural objects that catch your eye.  Find a subject to focus on, then ask your child to draw it.  You can temporarily catch insects in a yogurt container or (better yet) a clear plastic container with a lid so that your child can get up close and personal and really focus on observing her critter before drawing it.  And make sure to release whatever you have captured when you are done.  Your bug will want to get back home.  Or, try bringing some plants, flowers, rocks, shells, pine cones and other natural objects inside, ask your child to observe them closely and tell you what he notices about them.  As more and more details emerge, bring out the paint and paintbrushes.  Or the paper and scissors.  Or the pen and paper.  Or any miscellaneous materials you have around your house to create a sculpture.  Use the scientific observations you made together as a jumping off point for artistic inspiration, and watch your child exercise both their inner artist and their inner scientist.  And watch them develop a sense of what the “big picture” really is.

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