Posted on 29 July 2019

Beyond The Unseen: Engaging communities with science

Early findings from The Unseen research project show that participants take home clear science messages through working on art.

The transdisciplinary project by Gabby O’Connor, a PhD student at the University of Auckland and NIWA, was setup as an innovative way to communicate risk and uncertainty in marine science.

Through a series of workshops Gabby worked with more than 1,600 school students and a further 200 community members to explore the risks associated with environmental and climate change, and how this might affect the way we manage New Zealand’s marine ecosystems. At each Art-Science workshop, Gabby introduced a guest scientist who discussed their marine research. Afterwards, Gabby connected the science with art, using her work in Antarctica as an example, and ran a workshop so participants could work together to synthesise their shared knowledge into a collaborative artwork.

Students gave feedback at the end of the workshops about what they had learnt. Preliminary findings reveal that science information and concepts featured in more than 80% of the responses, recorded as words or images on postcards.

The final collaborative artwork was exhibited at the local Suter Gallery. Feedback responses from viewers also focused on the science, with again more than 80% mentioning science.

“This is really encouraging, as the purpose of this art-science-education research was to make the unseen world and complicated concepts ‘visible’ to non-specialists,” says Gabby. “People learn kinesthetically, as well as collaboratively as they work on the art. The feedback shows that the marine science had a big impact on most of those who took part.”

The audience is likely to reach beyond the particpants to the students’ extended networks, explains Gabby, as many students and their teachers go on to discuss the workshops with their whānau, peers and communities.

Art is a powerful communicator of complex ideas she continues:“Art is not just nice, it is necessary for growing audiences”. Her inspiration is the work of the late Stanford professor and art education champion Elliot Eisner.

“Art-science can engage people who may normally never have an interest in science; and it can make those with an existing interest think about it in an entirely different way.”

A final exhibition of The Unseen will be held at the Papakura Art Gallery in Auckland in April 2020.

Video: The Unseen (2 mins)

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