Lighting the way to science and art education

Some students love art. Others have a passion for science, math and other technical subjects. Lila Finch wants students to feel more comfortable crossing those disciplinary boundaries, and uses students’ enthusiasm for one to fuel interest in the other.

In August, she brought together technology, art and science teachers from Nederland Middle-High School and Northglenn High School for her Luminous Science workshop, where she demonstrates a project that enables educators to blend technology, computer science and art into a single classroom project. 

“Finding ways to make science and art equally valued in the classroom is a high priority for me,”  said Finch, who works for the Laboratory for Playful Computation (LPC) and is pursuing a doctoral degree through the ATLAS Institute. “These subjects are thought of as distinct from one another, but there’s no reason why they can’t be more integrated.” 

Lila Finch paints lantern

Finch completing a large lantern now on display in the ATLAS Institute.

Sponsored by a grant from Oracle Corporation, the workshop involves art, circuitry, soldering, plant science and computer programming. Participating teachers constructed colorfully decorated wire-and-paper Japanese (Nabuta) lanterns illuminated by LEDs. The lights were then wired to low-cost Micro:bit microcontrollers specifically designed for use by first-time coders. Teachers with no previous coding experience were able to program the lights to respond to real-time data from sensors in an indoor hydroponic garden, reflecting conditions like moisture, light and temperature in the appearance of their lanterns.  

Ben Shapiro, director of LPC, an assistant professor at ATLAS, and Finch’s advisor, points out that only 15 percent of CU Boulder students enrolled in computer science classes are women. Interdisciplinary approaches like this, particularly at the middle and high school levels, are one way to start turning that around, he says. 

But it requires careful classroom management. “‘You (girls) do the painting while we (boys) do the soldering,’ could happen when implementing this project,” says Shapiro. In addition to addressing more equitable gender participation, the workshop also addresses how to support students with intellectual or physical needs, such as those who may have trouble soldering because of poor muscle control.

Andy Vartabedian, an art teacher from Northglenn High School, said he has wanted to bring programing and circuitry into his art classes for a while, but up to this point didn’t know how to approach it.

“I could see myself taking a computer programming class, but it would be tough to figure out how to incorporate it into my art class,” Vartabedian said. “This workshop trained us in a very practical way.”

Heather Politi who teaches computer science and math at Nederland Middle-Senior High School, said she is excited to teach her students soldering, as well as how to write the code to import data from the garden to the lantern.

“The art side helps make sense of an overflow of numbers, improves our understanding of plant biology and then brings it all together,” Politi said.  “Making something physical in additional to the programming will up student engagement.”

Finch, a former high school science teacher and a graduate of Caltech and Lewis & Clark College, said teachers taking her workshop walk away with interdisciplinary curriculums ready to implement in their classrooms. But she also hopes that there can be a much broader application, where similar interdisciplinary curriculums are implemented farther afield, bringing in aspects from different cultures so that this approach reaches beyond Japanese lantern-making and the science extends beyond a garden.

“We can dream pretty big,” said Finch.