valeria gaona with painting
Institute of the Environment 2017

Micrographs and Mini LEO: Engaging Kids in Science through Art

Friday, May 6, 2016

By Maya Kapoor, Institute of the Environment

Waving seaweed, mystical forest, flowing avalanche. These are just some of the experiences and findings, portrayed through art, of K-6 students from four Tucson schools who collaborated with the University of Arizona in a program that blends art with science. 

Now, the artworks produced by the 169 participating students are on display in two locations: Biosphere 2 and the UA’s Environment and Natural Resources 2 building. Many of the students designed their art to reflect their experiences participating in Biosphere 2’s Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, project. 

“My art was a way to express myself instead of writing in my journal,” explained Valeria Gaona, a third grader in Lydia Mendoza’s classroom at Manzo Elementary School. “I was happy that I was able to help the Biosphere 2 scientists so I put bright colors in my art to represent my feelings. My artwork displays a velvet mesquite sprout in front of the sunset.”

An Expression of Life, LEO, Colors_Valeria Gaona

An artistic interpretation of mini LEO experimentation by Manzo Elementary School third grader Valeria Gaona. Credit: Edwin Arnaud

Students as Scientists and Artists

The LEO project at Biosphere 2 comprises three hillslopes of volcanic tephra, each 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, that scientists are studying to understand ecosystem responses to climate change. Scientists plan to add vegetation to the LEO’s barren soil; through the UA’s Community and School Garden Program, students from Borton Magnet School, J.B. Wright Elementary School, Mansfeld Middle School, and Manzo Elementary School provide useful information by experimenting with seed germination on the perfectly scaled classroom LEOs, which have the same soil type, slope, and aspect as the hillslopes at Biosphere 2. 

“Students see which plants will germinate, for how long, and at what densities,” said Michelle Coe, a research specialist and mini LEO program director. “Kindergartners all the way up to sixth graders contribute data that’s actually being looked at by scientists at Biosphere 2.” 

Gaona’s painting, “An Expression of Life, LEO, Colors,” of water, volcanic soil, sunset, mountains, and velvet mesquite, depicts that learning experience and scientific findings. 

“We were learning about velvet mesquite and white thorn acacia,” she explained. “But the white thorn acacia didn’t grow in the volcanic soil.” 

Having such an arts component to a long-term research project helps teachers reach different types of students, Coe said. “Some students might hate observing and recording all of the datathroughout the year but can get creative with watercolor paints or photography. It seems to be enjoyable to all the students.”

The artistic interpretation of scientific work began in January. “We wanted the students to start thinking about all the data we are continuing to collect and how to communicate that,” Coe said. “It doesn’t have to be in the form of a poster presentation or a scientific article. It can be an abstract piece of art that triggers someone to ask what happened. The end result can be the same; you’re sharing data either way. You’re sharing your understanding of what happened.”

Students also participated in a micrograph study. “A micrograph is something—like blood cells—that when you zoom in, it looks bigger and you can see it,” said Antonio Diaz, a sixth grader from Mansfeld. “You take big pictures and you can see something small.”

Students produced watercolor images to interpret photographs taken through a microscope of items ranging from hummingbird feathers to mineral crystals. Diaz’s painting was inspired by a micrograph of asbestos minerals. “Asbestos is a type of mineral that comes off of buildings. It can harm you if you inhale it,” he said, adding he didn’t know about asbestos before the micrograph project.

Sharing the Beauty in Science

Antonio Diaz

Mansfeld Middle school student Antonio Diaz created his painting, "Red Hot Wood Chips," after studying micrograph images in class. Credit: Edwin Arnaud

The micrographs and mini LEO program forms scaffolding for science lessons that take place throughout the school year. In addition to plant germination, students study climate, landscape, and soil. Students do bio blitzes—intense biological surveys—of their schoolyards, where they observe the ecology of the school’s campus.

“It’s this big accumulation of knowledge, so by the end of the year the students can give a pretty detailed answer about what’s happening and why, pulling from all of those resources,” Coe said.“The kids really love it.”

The Biosphere 2 scientists love it too. “Science in a vacuum without those other components of what makes life worth living is an ignorant way to approach science,” said Kevin Bonine, research biologist at the UA and director of education and outreach at Biosphere 2. “The arts are very important for teaching effective science. They are also important for getting people who aren’t interested or who think they aren’t, engaged in science. If you pair arts with science, you get a lot more people engaged because they can relate to it.”

Diana Liverman, co-director of the Institute of Environment, spoke to the students who attended the ENR2 micrographs and mini LEO gallery opening about the importance of their work.

“I really love it when people take science—like what’s being done at Biosphere 2 and at your schools—and then find ways to communicate it to the public,” she said. “University professors use all this jargon and we really need other people to help us explain what’s happening to the environment and inspire people to look after it.”

Liverman was very supportive of the young students’ work. “One of the things I love about this exhibit is the way in which it inspires us to think about looking after the environment, but it’s also very beautiful.” Liverman ended her remarks by telling the young artist-scientists she hoped to see them enrolled as UA students someday.

A Community-wide Collaboration

Mini LEO is a community-wide collaboration, created by Biosphere 2, Tucson Unified School District, and the School and Community Garden Program, which is run by the UA’s School of Geography and Development. “Those three entities helped one another to achieve the outreach and education goal of connecting scientists at Biosphere 2 with students around the district who probably aren’t receiving those science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities and extracurriculars that other schools might be, especially in low income areas that we work in,” Coe said.

Funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice helped the project, which began in Manzo Elementary School, expand to three other Tucson schools.

“The Haury program became interested in funding expansion of the Community and School Gardens Program’s mini LEO component in additional Tucson schools because this presented an excellent opportunity to expand the Community and School Gardens program and to leverage funding we provided to teacher training at Biosphere 2,” said Anna Spitz, director of the Haury program.


If You Go:

Biosphere 2: Students’ artwork will remain on display in the Visitor Center until May 20.

ENR2: Students’ artwork will remain on display in S215 until May 21.


Media Contact:

Michelle A. Coe, Research Specialist/Program Director, mini LEO Program

(520) 626-4666