The Potential Da Vinci in All of Us: Integrated Learning in the Arts and the Sciences

By Petto, Sarah; Petto, Andrew | The Science Teacher, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Potential Da Vinci in All of Us: Integrated Learning in the Arts and the Sciences


Petto, Sarah, Petto, Andrew, The Science Teacher


Work in both the arts and sciences is rooted in tenacious curiosity and intellectual creativity. Whether in the art studio or the science laboratory, practitioners use materials to envision and shape aspects of the world around them. In both science and art, this practice is meant not just to illustrate but also to transform our understanding (Crease 1995).

In this article, we describe an instructional approach that integrates learning science and the visual arts (Dambekalns 2005; Hall 2005) and meets curriculum objectives in both disciplines (Petto and Petto 1998). To describe this approach, consider the example of studying the form and function of the human skeleton. Students build a model of the human skeleton to apply skills in both domains and complete inquiry-based lessons on body structure, shape, and proportion.

Shared skill development

However frequently science teachers use models and other visual representations of scientific ideas and processes, we rarely engage the one expert in the school who could help students render these visualizations more effectively--the art educator. In addition, most of the work students produce in science class typically uses art only as a decorative or illustrative element. The artwork is added on to the scientific material; students learn the science first and then try to engage the artistic skills necessary to produce a visual representation of one or two key concepts.

The approach presented in this article is founded on the concept that the essential skills for successful learning in both the arts and sciences require higher-order thinking, creative problem solving, and an adaptive dialogue between the student and the materials and resources used to facilitate learning (Petto 1994; Burton, Horowitz, and Abeles 2000). In the process, students' understanding in both disciplines is deepened, enriched, and transformed (Yore, Hand, and Prain 2002).

Although the primary example in this article is used in a biology or life science unit on the human skeleton, we have successfully applied this approach to units on light and shadow, the curvature of Earth, animal camouflage, the immune system, eggs and nests, architecture, and several other areas in which the arts and sciences converge. In this article, we briefly describe the animal camouflage and architecture examples in addition to the human skeleton example.

Building skeletons

The study of the human form is fundamental to both science and art curricula. For vertebrates, perhaps no feature is more important than the skeleton to determine observable form and function. As Leonardo da Vinci's famous Proportions of the Human Figure (Virtruvian Man) illustrates, the size, shape, and proportions of the human body are defined by bones and their articulations (Figure 1). In a unit that focuses on the human skeleton, we introduce these concepts by asking students both to study da Vinci's drawing and to relate its features to their own bodies. Students compare the relative proportions of limbs and torso to the "ideal" ratios described by da Vinci.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Activity overview

Once students have been introduced to form and function through da Vinci's drawing and a related discussion, each student (or small team of students) begins to build a model from newspaper and other recycled materials, such as magazines, shredded paper, or construction paper from old bulletin boards. Figure 2 shows one example that uses a recycled plastic milk jug for the skull. Others have used tennis balls, craft sticks, or bubble wrap to create skeletons--the essence of this lesson is for students to explore different materials to find those suitable for their own models.

In this activity, students first learn that newspaper becomes stronger when layers of paper are rolled into tubes. These tubes are made more resilient when fastened with strips of masking tape. …

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