Students not specifically focusing in ecology represent a large audience who often feel disconnected from the natural world around them. Teaching non-majors to understand complex ecological interactions and to recognize their impact on nature can sometimes be a challenge, but it is also a chance to engage students in interdisciplinary learning and provide critical and integrative thinking opportunities. Engaging these students in learning ecology requires a multi-perspective approach and presents unique challenges. As an artist and an ecologist we worked together to co-design and then co-teach a new course for undergraduate non-majors entitled “Art and Ecology in the Anthropocene”. The goals of the course were for students to: (1) demonstrate ecological understanding of and artistic responses to complex ecosystems, (2) synthesize scientific skills and artistic creativity to critically reflect on ecological destruction, and (3) effectively communicate using art and ecology together. We taught this class three times to groups of 15-19 students. Each semester we surveyed the students on the first and last day of class to measure shifts in their attitudes toward nature, ecology and the usefulness of incorporating art to teach ecology.
In this talk we will discuss the overall design of our course using a framework that begins with landscape ecology and then breaks into units on the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. We will also describe specific assignments and in-class concept mapping activities used. Our student survey results show measurable changes from the first day of class to the last day in how our students view nature and understand ecological problems. Noticeably, from pre- to post- tests, students significantly increased their ranking of the importance and usefulness of art in demonstrating ecological issues. Students also changed their views on questions concerning the state of the planet today and their predictions for the future. Our interdisciplinary approach allowed many of our students to reflect thoughtfully on their views toward the environment and their own connections to nature. With current ecological concerns it is becoming increasingly imperative for all students, especially those not majoring in ecology, to understand ecological concepts, to enhance their observational skills, and to see themselves as connected to the natural world. Teaching classes that integrate art with ecology is one way to work toward this.