Austin Isner 2016 Scientific Images Contest finalist. Photo by Judy Chiss

On Nov. 7, hundreds of participants and guests attended a culminating Northwestern University (NU) and Evanston Townsgip High School (ETHS) collaborative art and science event held in the high school auditorium gallery. The project was sponsored by Northwestern’s Science in Society Center, a research center dedicated to science education and public engagement.  The event, involving ETHS art and physics classes as well as NU researchers, centered around scientific images that represented diverse disciplines such as genetics, chemistry, engineering, medicine, and astrophysics.  The science images in the exhibit were arresting but represented only one aspect of a layered educational initiative that was equal parts art contest, creative art and physics classroom lessons on display, training opportunities for NU’s young scientists to share expertise with the community, and a stimulating evening for the attendees of the reception. 

The winning 12 images from Northwestern’s annual Scientific Images Contest were a catalyst for the interdisciplinary collaboration between the high school and the University. Over the course of several weeks, ETHS art students viewed the dozen research images that had been selected and judged by an interdisciplinary panel of artists, scientists, and community leaders. Subsequently, each student chose an image to interpret artistically. Some of the 77 student artworks on display were drawings or paintings; others were pieces of sculpture, collaged compositions, or original science-related photographic images. The participating student artists were enrolled in AP Studio Art 2-D (taught by Marla Seibold and Elizabeth Dusold); AP Studio Art 3-D (taught by Petra Maton); Drawing 1 (taught by Pam Sloan); or Physics (taught by Dan Dubrow).

ETHS senior Mia Abbot, a veteran art student who is currently enrolled in Ms. Seibold’s AP 2-D class, selected an honorable-mention photo entitled “Galaxy Evolution” by NU scientist Zachary Hafen as her inspiration. “I had no idea what the photo was actually about,” Mia said. “There was no title or text shown to me, only an image to look at. I found out later what the photo was about. It shows different perspectives of the galaxy spread out over time. When I looked at the photo, I just thought it reminded me of something happening in space.” Mia’s acrylic painting in fiery oranges, golds, and reds came from her ideas of how an imploded star or an erupting volcano could look. “I love to look at the sky, actually, and taking chemistry last year somehow made me think about how ecology and art merge.”  During the evening reception for the Scientific Images Contest, the visiting NU scientist and the ETHS student met and talked. Even though Mia has already had a summer college art experience and is headed for art school next fall and not a concentration of college science, she was interested in the overlapping disciplines represented in the exhibit.

Another student in Ms. Siebold’s AP 2-D class, without knowing the photo’s actual subject matter, also chose Zachary Hafen’s photo of the galaxy as her artistic muse. Celia Nicolson used a static, comic-book kind of format with framed-in pen and ink drawings that contained surprises of vibrant color. Her carefully controlled drawings were intersected with blazing and dramatic patches of color and suggested some kind of narrative viewers might discover. One of the parents attending the reception and standing near Celia’s piece of art commented that she loved “how several wildly different artworks were responding to the same stand-alone image about a scientific phenomenon.”     

Pam Sloan, one of the art teachers participating in the project, took the opportunity of ETHS and NU collaboration to imbed a lesson about Cubism in her challenge to Drawing 1 students. “Students were told to select any one of the science research images – of course without knowing what the images represented or were about, but the students’ assignment was to create a completely different composition by cutting apart and then totally reassembling and reconstructing the composition,” she said. Then students were asked to transfer their new compositions to either their cell phone or Chromebook – and to crop and tweak them to give the flat images more dimension and depth. “I thoroughly enjoyed developing the assignment idea, and I could tell that students were excited and really liked working on their pieces,” said Ms. Sloan.

The ETHS exhibit gallery adjacent to the auditorium was the first venue in this year’s traveling Scientific Images Contest schedule. The exhibit closed on Nov.10 but will travel in December to the downtown site of the Evanston Public Library (independent of the ETHS student artwork), and following that, in spring, to the Museum of Science and Industry. Many of the young NU scientists whose images won recognition will be available at designated times to interpret their work and informally talk to the public. Winners of the 2016 Scientific Images Contest and those receiving honorable mentions include Kelly Jarvis (first place winner), Adam Jakus, Austin Isner, Karma Gowda, Mark McClendon, Christopher Synatschke, Christopher Serrano, Zachary Hafen, Emily Hoffman, Jennifer Davis, James Hedrick, and Michael Whittaker. All of the student artwork from this year’s high school and University collaboration will be available for viewing on NU’s Science in Society website gallery.

Since the fall of 2012, NU/ETHS established a partnership office inside the high school, the bold purple office in corridor H, has been a busy place. Its role is facilitating collaborations linking formal and informal learning in order to strengthen educational experiences and academic outcomes of students of both institutions. Kristen Perkins, the Partnership Coordinator and one of two full-time staff people onsite at the high school, started out with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Now Ms. Perkins and her colleague Jill Lindeman help facilitate collaborative ventures in all academic areas – in health and wellness, athletics, career education, college preparation, cultural events, mentorships, and other kinds of programs that students or faculty might want to explore. Earlier this fall, Northwestern University’s Science in Society Center hired Jennifer Lewin to be a liaison for STEM programs and learning in District 65. Funded by NU, both the high school and District 65 partnerships are connected to NU’s Good Neighbor, Great University initiative and are helping to expand learning opportunities that strengthen our community.