Playfulness is crucial in setting the mood for exploring creativity and imagination.
In my History of Science course (which is mandatory in the Liberal Arts program at Vanier College) we study the evolution of science going from Aristotelian cosmology to Newtonian Physics, and then to Einstein’s view of the universe. In this course my students are required to submit a 3,000-word sci-fi story that takes place in a distant future when humans have established colonies on Mars. Although the story is fictional, students have to describe the technology involved in space exploration and the conditions of the Martian environment based on scientific data that is made available from reliable sources such as the NASA website, TED talks, books, and articles from magazines such as Scientific American.
The idea is that students will contextualize in their stories’ plots the topics studied in the course like, for example, electromagnetic radiation and theories about the origin of life. Another requirement is that the story has to make a reference to a Greek myth of their choice.
The variety of themes within students’ work is fascinating: some students write about the Mars wars of independence, others about capitalism and its constant need for expansion, while others write personal stories that resemble famous Classical Greek tragedies that portray the fragility and absurdity of the human condition. This assignment requires them to explore storytelling by engaging with the scientific concepts studied while playing imaginatively with their favorite mythological figures, personal interests, and the material from their favorite courses in the program.
“The Promethean Colony” is an example of one of my students’ work:
Playing With Iron Oxide
In order to plant the seeds for a strong emotional engagement with the Mars theme, there is an art lab that takes place during the third week of the course. The core material of this lab is a sample of iron oxide, one of the main components of the Martian regolith, its surface material that gives the planet its characteristic red color.
Playfulness is the key in this totally unstructured lab. Students are invited to explore the iron oxide powder with different textures (water, egg tempera, resins) and create a visual representation by pretending that they are colonists living on Mars and surrounded by this color everywhere they look. As food for thought, I suggest that they might want to paint a Martian flag since this red color would likely be part of it. However, they are free to create whatever they feel like during the 2-hour lab period.
Besides forcing them to think about the bizarre and unique environment of the red planet, this exercise also has the goal of easing their fear of playing with art. Many students feel discomfort and uneasiness when first told about the artwork assignment that is due at the end of the semester. (Read more about the Visual Arts project here.) This exercise reinforces the idea that they will not be judged and assessed as an art student. What is important here is the creative process. I encourage my students to feel free to play like they used to in kindergarten. After this lab, students tend to lose their fear about the art project.
This kind of teaching demonstrates that fostering creativity and imagination in higher education requires the necessary shift in thinking to a new culture of learning in which the environment plays a major role, privileging play, questioning, and self-reflection.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Anna Timm-Bottos, Laura Huddart, and Janis Timm-Bottos of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, Concordia University, Montreal. For information on the Art & Science project, visit the website www.artandchemistry.ca.