Teaching Science Through Art

Jame McCray with two dancers at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Visitors to the Philadelphia Flower Show this year will find a very different experience at the University of Delaware educational exhibit. The show’s World of Water theme will be embodied not only in the display inspired by Delmarva bays – large vernal pools found mostly in the middle of the peninsula – but also by UD students performing a dance at the exhibit each day of the show.

The students took a four-week course over winter session co-taught by Kimberly Schroeder, director of UD’s dance minor, and Delaware Sea Grant marine advisory service specialist Jame McCray, an interdisciplinary ecologist by training with a passion for dance and its use to reach people with environmental information. McCray taught the students the science of vernal pools, how these depressions fill with water only part of the year, allowing unique ecological communities to thrive. Because the pools dry out in the summer, fish cannot live in the waterbodies, making them vital habitat for amphibians and well-adapted reptiles and plants.

Once they understood the ecosystems, the students worked with Schroeder and McCray to express their new knowledge through movement, creating the dance they will share at the flower show from March 3 through 11, after previewing it at three separate performances on campus in January and February. The process, from class through performances, illustrate some of the benefits of an emerging specialty, arts integration.

“Now we have this group of people who know about vernal pools and salamanders and fairy shrimp and some of the conservation issues,” McCray said. “And now these folks can take it to an even wider audience.”

In addition to reaching new audiences with environmental information, the class was an example of the educational benefit of the emerging field of arts integration, an innovative approach to merging science and art. While it is understood that people learn in different ways, classrooms still need more tools to reach some of those who thrive when learning by doing. McCray explains these kinesthetic learners best absorb new knowledge through movement.

But the benefits of arts integration go deeper than reaching new audiences and better serving certain students. McCray joined Delaware Sea Grant 11 months ago as an environmental social scientist for the Marine Advisory Service. Her role in MAS focuses on community engagement and evaluating the social impact of Sea Grant work with members of the public. Arts integration provides a tool for engagement, and her social science background allows her to measure its effectiveness, providing for better approaches in the future and building the academic literature on this emerging field.

Dancers in a vernal pool exhibit.

When used in the community, arts integration can lead to more productive engagement around environmental issues in two ways. It can encourage more creative approaches to solving environmental problems by avoiding conventional thinking. And it can “circumvent the non-conversations that currently go on about environmental issues,” as McCray explains it, using climate change as an example.

“You say climate change, and party A immediately says this and party B immediately says that and nobody is talking to each other. But if you see a play based on a situation that happens because of climate change, then the conversation you are going to have is about the characters and the story,” McCray said. “Arts integration allows us to have conversations about how we are going to move forward and what we are going to do.”

Much of the research to date on arts integration has revolved around free choice learning and museum exhibits, which translates well to the Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit McCray has worked on with Jules Bruck of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and her students. In addition to the dance, McCray has helped design the interpretive signage in the Delmarva bays exhibit, and she will be evaluating the impact both the exhibit and the dance has on the audience at the flower show. She hopes studying things like where people spend the most time, what messages they take away from the exhibit, and how it affects them will continue to build the case for the value of arts integration and help spread its use to more scientists, educators and others.