In our technological culture, many students are disconnected from nature, expressing indifference or fear of wild places. Even those who focus on ecology/environmental science are often woefully ignorant of natural history. Yet in this time of collapsing biodiversity and rapid environmental change, we need students who develop abilities to engage creatively in these problems, as scientists trained in field ecology, and as educated, aware members of the public who can make informed decisions. To address these concerns, I teach several highly experiential courses that combine outdoor ecological and artistic exploration. Educators today increasingly recognize that students perform better if they are not only intellectually, but emotionally and creatively engaged. My interdisciplinary courses explore whether combining art with ecology (1) increases student engagement, (2) deepens appreciation for the natural world, and (3) enhances understanding of approaches of both disciplines, thereby satisfying general education requirements in natural science and art. These courses began with my collaboration with art professor Andrew Wykes on a study-abroad course then expanded to courses that I teach alone. In these courses, students create visual art (digital photography, drawing, sculpture), design and conduct field research on topics of their choosing, and write reflections about their discoveries.
Students filled courses, with far more applying than could fit in the team-taught study abroad courses. Students included first-year through seniors in majors from business and social sciences to art and natural science. Highly engaged, students typically arrived early to class, missed class rarely if at all, and participated in class activities with enthusiasm. In courses where students used Likert scales (1-5) on evaluations, 97% agreed their course deepened their appreciation of the natural world (N = 36 who answered). Students seemed to gain enhanced understanding of disciplinary approaches of art and science by comparing the fields directly in the same course. Course activities that increased understanding included linking art principles with ecological concepts while viewing organisms in the field (e.g. art color theory applied to discussions of animal coloration for signaling or camouflage) and having students follow their interests by designing field-research mini-projects, creating related artwork and leading “nature-art” walks to teach others about their discoveries. Nature-anxiety was reduced when students wandered alone to appealing places where they created sculptures from natural materials. I encourage ecologists to create similar courses by partnering with artists or, for ecologists with artistic skills, explore ways to bring art into their courses.