Discovering Science Through Art-Based Activities

In this article, the author discusses how she uses art-based activities to help her students with language-based learning disabilities master science content. Integrating visual art and science is a way to meet the needs of all students. Although many of these lessons are designed for eighth graders, the basic approach of using art-based activities to help students understand scientific theories can be applied to K-5 classes.


Art and science are intrinsically linked; the essence of art and science is discovery. Both artists and scientists work in a systematic but creative way — knowledge and understanding are built up through pieces of art or a series of labs. In the classroom, integrating science and visual art can provide students with the latitude to think, discover, and make connections.

Located in Washington, D.C., The Lab School of Washington is a K-12 school for students with language-based learning disabilities. In the reading, writing and math classes of the junior high school, students are grouped by their skill levels. In the science classes, the students represent many different skill levels.

When planning lessons for my eighth-grade science classes, I approach the topics in a building-block manner. First, I break the topic down into its most basic parts and then rebuild it with a series of lessons that can be modified to each student’s needs. Each lesson has a series of components, including traditional academics and hands-on activities; the parts work together to give an underlying support for understanding.

There are many ways to employ visual art in the science classroom. Art-based activities can help students comprehend abstract scientific theories and improve their critical thinking skills. Through the manipulation of images and materials, these activities can also address deficits in sequencing and visual-spatial relationships. With each visual interpretation of a scientific concept, it is important that the student can show an understanding of the connection between the image/object and the concept. This can be done through creating a color-coded key, labeling, written reports or oral presentations.

Direct examples of art-based activities incorporate specific artists’ works that have a clear connection to science.

  • When students are working on a unit on simple machines, Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions can be looked at, analyzed and discussed, asking will they work, how they work, and why. Along with this, students may choose one of his machines and copy it. When using their skills of observation, students begin to identify the parts that make the machine work and then apply the appropriate scientific principles to explain how.
  • After viewing images of Rube Goldberg machines, students can design and build their own (simplified) Rube Goldberg-esque machines. They should have an accompanying display, report, or presentation, explaining the scientific applications of how the machine works.
  • Meriwether Lewis’s journal drawings offer a chance to study observation through its place in American history. The importance of observation, in a time when photography had not yet been invented, can be seen in Lewis’s journals. His careful observations of plant and animal species, along with descriptive writing, can be the basis of a student’s own science journal.

More abstract examples of the interaction between science and art can help students understand specific concepts.

  • A unit on color and light could be supported by the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, who, instead of mixing colors on a palette, applied dots of color to the canvas, relying on the viewer to mix the colors optically.
  • The idea of patterns in nature can be supported by analyzing a Jackson Pollock painting.
  • Alexander Calder’s mobiles lend themselves to the investigation of the physics of balance and movement, and also to the principles behind the manipulation of the materials used: malleability and ductility. In addition, an integral part of Calder’s work is the shadows produced by the interaction of light with the mobile’s parts.

Functioning objects give students not only the opportunity to examine the familiar using a scientific eye but also a chance to make familiar objects using scientific themes.

  • After students are introduced to the scientific applications behind Calder’s mobiles, they can use a variety of materials to make their own mobiles and provide an explanation of the scientific applications.
  • While working on a unit on light, students learn the similarities between the eye and a traditional camera, how light works, how film works, and how light reacts with film. The students build pinhole cameras, develop their negatives (working through the physical and chemical changes), and then make positives from their negatives.

Collages are a means for students to gather and assemble images that represent an idea. This is especially appealing for students who are self-conscious about their perceived lack of artistic abilities. When students are making collages in science, the collage grows out of completed research. Having background information allows the students to make critical choices when looking for appropriate images to represent written facts.

The Periodic Table of Elements Project:

  • Students are assigned an element.
  • Students are given worksheets with questions about that element and specific Internet sites to retrieve the information. (If computers aren’t available, the questions can be geared toward encyclopedia entries.)
  • Students gather their images based on their research.
  • In a given format, the students create a collage of images, including the name of the element, the symbol, atomic mass, and atomic number.
  • With all the elements collected, the teacher can make a large periodic table on a wall.
  • Each student presents an element; students also describe how each chosen image is connected to the element.

While murals can be a large undertaking, they include many levels of learning, from deductive and inductive reasoning skills to working on social pragmatics through the collaborative aspects of a large project.

Stained Glass Mural:

  • Students can work in teams or in groups.
  • Students do research on a specific object in the universe.
  • Using a printed image of their object, teams do collaborative drawing of their object, closely observing the nuances of their images.
  • Team members draw their images on a large piece of heavy black paper or matboard.
  • The images are cut out, leaving a thick outline intact.
  • Students paint tracing paper to the correct colors in the image.
  • Tracing paper is attached to the black paper or matboard.
  • The mural is meant to be placed in a window with light shining through.
  • Each student writes a short paper about his or her object.
  • Each team presents its image to the class.

Models are three-dimensional representations. Models should be labeled or accompanied by a color-coded key.

Cellular Models: Once the students understand the different parts of a cell, there are different ways they can build a three-dimensional cell.

The fun edible way:

  • Make jello in small bowls.
  • The students use different types of candy to represent the cell’s organelles.
  • The students make a key for what each candy represents.

3-D Plaster Relief Cells:

This is a fun, albeit messy way for students to make cell models. It is also tricky because, for the initial relief-mold, the structures need to be thought of in reverse. In other words, what would be sticking out needs to be inverted. If you have a diagram for students to use when needed, making the model can go smoothly.

  • The students use clay to make a relief mold of either a plant or animal cell.
  • Cardboard pieces that stand 3 inches above the clay mold are positioned butting up to the edges. The edges should be taped on the outside (using masking tape). This should resemble the clay mold sitting inside a fitted box.
  • Mix the plaster and pour it over the mold until the plaster is level with the top of the cardboard. (Warm water makes the plaster start to set quickly.)
  • Once the plaster has set (overnight), remove the cardboard and peel the clay away.
  • The casting should be gently cleaned with water in a sink
  • Bits of clay that remain on the casting can be cleaned off gently using a toothbrush and water
  • When the casting is dry, it can painted.
  • The students should then make a color-coded key for each organelle.

Casting can also be easily done with animal tracks. When tracks are found, use dirt to build an edge around the track. Plaster can be mixed outside and poured on the track. It will take a while for the plaster to set, depending on the temperature and humidity. Once the plaster is set, the cast track can be taken inside and rinsed off in a sink.

Art can also be incorporated into the science classroom by very basic means as well as a part of bigger projects. Observations in labs should be drawn as well as written. Use of observational skills is as necessary for a successful lab report as for a piece of art. Drawing an idea or color coding a diagram can help a student remember and connect image to word.

For every art-based project, the effectiveness of the piece should be discussed as a class. Important parallels can be drawn between the lab report and the artist’s critique. In a critique, a piece of work is examined, layers of meaning are peeled away, and observations must be backed up with valid reasoning. Like the lab report, it requires organized thinking and the synthesizing of material in order to write a conclusion. Both serve to help students think critically and work on their expressive language skills. Writing out a lab report helps students form questions and sequentially organize a series of events, leading them to examine the cause and effect within an experiment. As students’ scientific understanding develops and grows, their curiosity will grow as well.


This article was written by Rebecca Alberts. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Rebecca at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright December 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license

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