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Learning How to See

School: Camden-Rockport Middle School

City/State: Camden, ME

Grade(s): 7

Format(s): Report: Science, Visual arts

Subject(s): English Language Arts, Science and Technology, Visual Arts

Project Overview

Students in the 7th-grade team at Camden-Rockport Middle School in Camden, Maine, focused on the observation and representation of symbiotic relationships in the environment.

In science class, they studied the concept of symbiosis through fieldwork at local sites. At the same time, in art class, they worked to understand how to use various techniques to visually document their observations of the natural world. After building background knowledge, students selected one example of symbiosis they had directly documented through their observations and studied that example in-depth. The culminating product was a sculpture made up of mixed media paintings on wood and sgraffito on porcelain clay.  Students completed their artwork under the guidance of the art teacher, a visiting artist, and produced a formal piece of science writing focused on a claim, evidence, and reasoning.

The writing and sculpture were on public display at a local coffee shop along with the observation journals the students used for research.


We Asked the Teacher:

1. What was compelling for your students about this?

One of the major elements that students have given us positive feedback about relating to this project is the amount of choice they have. Students use symbiosis as a “conceptual lens” to look at interactions in the environment, but what they observe, study, and represent in their writing and sculpture—what they point that lens at—is up to them. In the end, students report that they look at the environment differently, because they start to see the patterns that are there that they didn’t notice before. Another way this project appeals to students is in the multiple ways they show their learning; students with strength in writing lead with that strength. For our young artists, they learn about how powerful visual communication is. They are able to communicate their nature observations in two very different artistic ways that come together in their final art piece. Their highly detailed, accurate scientific illustrations and their loose, expressive abstract collage represent their learning in both science and art.

2. What were the challenges?

See the answer to question 1, above! When we introduce the final group sculpture to the public, we are fond of noting that each student (we typically have 85 to 95) has created a unique, correct answer to the question, “How is life interconnected and interdependent?” This doesn’t mean that any one answer is true and accurate, and this is where the challenge lies. To help students conduct observations, we took them on multiple field experiences: to properties of a local land trust, to the fields and stream adjacent to our school, and on walking trips to wild places nearby to our in-town school. This year we bolstered the use of knowledgeable adult naturalists with the use of the citizen science app iNaturalist to help students identify organisms.  Nonetheless, getting each student to the place where they have correctly identified not only their two organisms, but also their interaction, is a source of challenge. 

3. What makes this particular piece a model for other student teachers?

Look beyond the specifics of this project to the underlying Project-Based Learning design concepts:

  • We gave students an authentic question: “How is life interconnected and interdependent?”
  • The answers weren’t pre-ordained.
  • We asked them to authentically use the tools of our disciplines, including: observation, scientific reasoning, and artistic representation.
  • In the end, they create their own answers.
  • Expression through artwork gives students a chance to be individual, explore various mediums and embark on self-choice to create multiple outcomes. 

4. What would be your advice to a teacher that is inspired by this project?

Take what works or resonates for you and throw out the rest. The beauty of this piece isn’t that it can, or should be, replicated in its totality, but rather that it represents a powerful way to integrate the disciplines that for us is natural and unforced. 

Don’t get the idea that all of us that were involved in the project were always present in the room with students at the same time. In fact, we rarely were. As we moved through the project, at times it was like handing off a baton. The art teacher made nature journals with students and conducted initial observations, then the science teacher used the journals and took students to multiple field locations to observe interactions between species. When students had settled on a symbiosis, they began the process or writing a formal Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) paper with their writing teacher. At the same time they were drawing scientific illustrations on clay tiles in the art room, they were making final edits to their writing. 

Having the student work culminate in a public exhibition of work was important to help raise the stakes for everyone involved. Setting an exhibition date and advertising to the public creates a hard-and-fast deadline, and students and staff develop a sense of shared purpose around getting the work done at a very high level.  

How This Project Can Be Useful

  • An excellent example of an inter-disciplinary project touching on science, writing, and art
  • Shows high-quality artwork in a unique design format
  • Written observations are included in the downloadable materials and show the story behind the artwork

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