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The City Journals

Art creates cosmic connections

May 07, 2018 02:31PM ● By Jet Burnham

Student art work decorates an entire wall in Cameron Vongsawad’s astronomy classroom. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Science can be a very left-brained subject. That’s what junior Shannon Andersen thought when she registered for an astronomy class at Copper Hills High School.

“I was expecting all numbers and equations and physics—but it’s not actually,” she said.

Her astronomy teacher, Cameron Vongsawad, started the term with an art project to introduce students to objects in the solar system.

“The whole project was the idea that art and astronomy are very much connected because astronomy is looking at images,” said Vongsawad. Most of what we know about the planets’ features, geology and atmosphere is gleaned by analyzing pictures of them, he said. “We look at line and shape, and at color, value and texture and ask ‘what does that mean about that object?’” said Vongsawad. 

Students studied an 8-inch-by-10-inch image of an object and then created their own interpretive art piece. Some showed a close-up of a geographic feature on a planet; others were from a distant perspective, showing weather patterns over a planet or the chemical make-up of a moon’s surface.

The assignment was a right-brained task in a left-brained subject.

“We were assigned to look at a picture and draw not necessarily what the picture is but what we saw in it,” said Jordan Anderson, a junior, who claims he is not an artist in any way.

“Venus didn't have too many distinct features, so I focused on select features,” he said.

Carter Coambs chose a picture of Pluto because he thought it would be easy to draw. As he studied the photograph, he realized it wasn’t as simple as he’d assumed.

“There were parts of it I would never have seen otherwise just looking at these photos,” said Coambs.

Even students familiar with art gained a deeper understanding of their subject. Senior Angel Ricas, an experienced artist, chose to focus on Jupiter’s rings. As she worked on her assignment, she saw the rings as a more complex feature of the planet. 

“I got to admire them—some are bigger, some thinner, some are more distinct,” Ricas said. She said realizing this helped her understand the differences in the makeup of the rings, something she’d never considered before.  

That was the goal of the art project.

“Often times, the kids think they know a lot about the solar system, but all they really know is the order of the main planets, and they don't realize all the other things,” said Vongsawad. He also assigned group presentations about a specific object in space, helping students gain a stronger understanding of the object before they expand on it in the course curriculum.

“We are at the beginning of talking about our solar system and what’s contained in it,” said Vongsawad. “Each one of them right now should be a relative expert in one of the objects.”

He said as the class discusses each object in the solar system—from planets to asteroids—students can share the details they discovered from their art pieces.

“We’re going to keep pushing into that idea and building on this project and reflecting on what they saw,” said Vongsawad.

Ricas believes adding a creative element to science makes it more accessible.

“I like the crossover of different subjects, mixing art with science,” she said. “It makes science less intimidating in a way—and more interesting.”

Andersen believes this type of assignment encourages students to step outside academic stereotyping.

“Getting scientific kids to do art work will help them see more in the scientific world instead of just numbers and equations,” she said. “It opens their vision of that kind of stuff.”

This is the first semester Vongsawad has implemented the NASA-sponsored project, titled “Art and the Cosmic Connection: Elements of Art Inspire Planetary Image Analysis,” which was created by Monica and Tyler Aiello. He adopted the program as his course introduction after attending a Deep Space workshop last fall.