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Using art in elementary science

Students’ illustrations can be an effective and insightful way of showing what they are learning in science class. Encourage students to draw scientifically, rather than artistically, that is, drawing what they actually see, rather than a representation or an artistic interpretation of what they see.

To help your students look closely, try any of these activities:

  • Give them a magnifying glass and invite them to draw exactly what they see in the glass, complete with lines, color, shape and texture.
  • Model drawing for your students by sketching on an overhead projector, with you moving between looking closely, sketching, looking closely again, sketching, etc. Students can easily move from representational drawing to scientific drawing when it is modeled for them.
  • As students conduct science investigations, require them to label the parts of their illustrations and to write a conclusion or hypothesis about their investigation.
  • Take students out in the schoolyard and give them a 36” string. Have them arrange the string in a circle or square on the ground. They should then draw everything they see within their shape, taking care to draw exactly what they see.
  • Students can be asked to trace an object and then draw the inside details.
  • Make mini-science journals for each topic of investigation for the year. This can be as simple as several sheets of blank paper folded and stapled in the middle. Keep the journals in a central spot in the classroom so that children can add to their journals as needed throughout the year, even if the science unit has been completed. Student observations and reflections should, of course, be accompanied by a multitude of drawings.

You can teach your students the following procedures for effective observation, analysis and evaluation:

Guide For looking*

1. The Description
Do a thorough and objective inventory of the physical features. List and describe everything you see. Look at the colors, shapes, lines, textures, size, materials used, age, etc. Does the object have a smell? Does it make a sound? Is it a natural substance or was it manufactured?

2. The Analysis
See how the object is organized. HOW IS IT PUT TOGETHER? What is emphasized? Is it complete? Explore design principles such as balance, rhythm, repetition, focal point, unity, etc.

3. The Interpretation

Based on what you have discovered in steps one and two, think about the purpose and/or meaning of the object. Put the pieces of the puzzle together to form your own interpretation. Your own base of knowledge will help you in the process. Think about its function. What was/is it for? How has it been used? Has the use changed over time?

4. The Judgment

Now that you have considered all of the above, what do you think of this object? What value was it to the people who made it, who used it and for those who now keep it?

*Based on "Guide for Looking" by Edmund Feldman. See Varieties of Visual Experiences (1972). Needham, MA: Prentice Hall.

Key Words: planning student activities, art, drawing, illustrations, labeling, journals, Feldman