Diversity and Democracy

Envisioning Interdisciplinarity: The Art and Science of Environmental Sustainability

"Think globally; act locally." In the context of ecological sustainability, these words suggest an important outcome we want all our students to achieve: the ability to frame their individual choices and actions in a global environmental context. Interdisciplinary teaching that combines ecology and studio art provides a unique way to pursue this outcome. By merging these two disciplines, we have found a means of connecting our students' local experiences of personal consumption with a globalized understanding of science and art.

Figure 1. Students created works of art that explored topics in sustainability, such as the inner workings of the American industrial food chain. Photo by Gregg Moore.
Figure 1. Students created works of art that explored topics in sustainability, such as the inner workings of the American industrial food chain. Photo by Gregg Moore.

In July 2007, when Arcadia University was planning a major revision to its undergraduate curriculum, we participated in AAC&U's Shared Futures institute in Sonoma, California. The institute focused on interdisciplinary curriculum development with an emphasis on global connections and environmental sustainability. In one institute session, we encountered the challenge, "If you could create an interdisciplinary course with a colleague who is here today, what would you teach?" Out of this question grew Envisioning Sustainability: Contemporary Art and Environmental Science, a seminar we taught for the first time in the spring of 2009.

Planning and Execution

In conceptualizing the course, we looked toward Arcadia's new undergraduate curriculum and its University Seminar framework. According to the curriculum, University Seminars are "designed to make intellectual connections among academic disciplines and between scholarly ideas and the world beyond the classroom" (2007). Interdisciplinary in content and global in context, these seminars are no small challenge to design. In preparing the course, we met weekly for two semesters to brainstorm course content, links between our fields, possible student projects, local field trips, and an organizational scheme. We also built a course Web site to deliver content (readings, podcasts, videos, and images) to students. During the course, students upload images and data to the Web site as part of their experiential learning.

We settled on a course design that includes semiweekly three-hour meetings structured alternately as a lecture-seminar and as a lab-studio. In the lecture-seminar sessions, we discuss the science of sustainability issues (food, waste, and energy) and the artistic presentation of sustainability. The lab-studio sessions provide time for scientific data analysis and creative work, including long- and short-term experimental and artistic projects.

We designed the course to weave subject matter together in a truly interdisciplinary fashion, rather than to alternate subjects in a multidisciplinary manner. Within the course, scientific content forms a framework for artistic work, and vice versa. While teaching students the science of environmental sustainability, we encourage them to see art as a critical lens through which to view these issues. 

Our overall objective in teaching Envisioning Sustainability is to expose the relationship between contemporary art and science with a specific focus on environmental sustainability and global interdependence. Within that framework, we aim for students to (1) understand contemporary artistic conventions and the relationship between contemporary art and science; (2) develop literacy in visual representations of scientific information through the use of mobile devices and digital technology; (3) create digital and physical works of art in which content relates explicitly to scientific analysis of sustainability; (4) understand the impacts of daily choices on the environment, biodiversity, and human health; and (5) understand the connectivity and unity of life through topics from evolution and ecology. The course's overarching goal is for students to become educators, able to articulate to others the impact societal choices have on the environment.

Bridging Art and Science

The spring 2009 section of the course drew a mix of students from the sciences, arts, and other disciplines, each bringing different skill sets to the learning enterprise. The science students had experience working with, interpreting, and making graphical representations of data; similarly, the art students were experienced in considering art as a vehicle to communicate ideas and provoke thought. The following two examples illustrate how course assignments bridged the gap between these approaches and skill sets.

During our unit on energy, we initiated an in-class case study of three artists or works of art, including photographs of American landscapes affected by industrial production and pollution, a sculptural installation consisting of several tons of coal arranged to suggest that the viewer is in a coal mine, and a performance piece in which the artist released six kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while standing on an ice shelf in the Arctic. We divided students into three small groups to review and discuss these works' meaning and effectiveness. Each group read artist statements and critical essays, formulated questions to stimulate discussion, and presented their findings to the class. Drawn in by the artworks' emotional impact, students examined a broad range of topics, including aesthetics, geopolitics, social critique, the role of science in art, and art's potential to create social change.

In our unit on the sustainability of food systems, we instructed students to record and photograph everything they ate for three weeks. Students analyzed their personal datasets to determine such factors as the likely distance their food travelled to reach them and the acres of land necessary to produce their diets. One of the most illuminating analyses came from students' determination of what percentage of their food contained high fructose corn syrup, a staple of the American industrial food chain. Students assembled graphs depicting what they had learned and created works of art interpreting their experiences collecting data. They exhibited these representations at a gallery exhibition titled, "Corn Bred: Are You What You Eat?" (Figure 1). Students' analytical and creative processes were the driving force behind the exhibit. While the science majors in the class helped others summarize and depict data in graphical form, the art majors brought an element of visual poetry to the presentation. The result was social critique, an educator's tool to change the world for the better.

Thus the synergism of students from two backgrounds (art and science) enhanced the learning environment for students of various majors. The assignments, discussions, and gallery exhibitions melded the two disciplines, encouraging students to think multidimensionally and to look to each other for guidance and critique. The course design required students to understand topics in biology as background for effective art, and conversely to see art as an effective way to communicate scientific ideas. The different perspectives students brought to class stimulated discussion, creativity, and deep thinking beyond what either group could accomplish in a classic disciplinary setting.


From an ecologist's perspective, one of the greatest benefits of a course like Envisioning Sustainability is that it exposes students from diverse disciplines to important ecological principles. In addition, it introduces future scientists to art as a means of universal communication not normally used within scientific disciplines. Through its links to science, art becomes both a means of understanding the natural world and a vehicle to communicate scientific ideas beyond the scientific community.

From an artist's perspective, the interdisciplinary format shifts the pedagogical focus from the technical aspects of the creative process toward a conceptual approach to art. Students learn to assimilate scientific information through works that communicate a personal connection to and grasp of the subject matter. Through production and peer critique, students evaluate the effectiveness of art as a means of depicting scientific data and communicating with an audience.

We believe that it is the university's duty to educate responsible citizens of the biosphere--people who will vote, consume energy and resources responsibly, and teach these lifestyle choices to others. We want our students to talk proactively about solutions, both local and global, and understand their role in those solutions. Art provides one gateway to these lessons as it makes global science personal.

A public version of the Envisioning Sustainability Web site is available at web.me.com/ausustainability/


Arcadia University. 2007. Undergraduate curriculum.www.arcadia.edu/academic/default.aspx?id=13102.

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