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Getting ready to steam

in Breathing Space/Featured by

My studio is a colourful mess. It has the type of explosive rainbow quality that only comes with a craft project in progress. I’m in preparation mode for a series of summer space science workshops for kids at the Johnson GEO Centre in which art will be the doorway to science learning. While the children mix greyscale paint values and cut-‘n’-glue their very own GEODials (based on Bill Nye’s Mars Dial) they will actually be learning all about astronomy and the science of light. Sneaky!

The injection of Art into space science STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning to create STEAM is a pretty common strategy nowadays to jazz up what could be perceived as a dry or dull topic. While the art medium can range from washable markers to digital game design, the desired outcome is the same:  to spark an interest in STEM education that will foster the growth of future scientists. Imagination and creativity is the hopeful vehicle for geeky greatness and the knowledge required to get us off the planet and further human space exploration. In addition to adding razzle-dazzle to textbooks, art is also used as a conduit for the communication of space science news to the general public. As such, art serves a major role in the branch of the space industry generally termed “Space and Society” in academic circles.

There are certainly no shortage of STEAM projects in schools and other outreach and education programs worldwide. What may be harder to uncover, however, are the educational support platforms for the STEAM artists themselves. If creatives are to be encouraged to plug into STEM education in order to make science accessible, on a fundamental level they must understand the science. There’s a catch-22 there, since most artists are in fact not trained scientists. So where can they go for accessible science learning that isn’t aimed at children? Who can artists turn to for their own STEAM training?

There are a whole host of resources available to boost space science knowledge. The platforms range from brief online science videos for the amateur space hobbyist, to years of interdisciplinary PhD studies for the more committed artist-in-space-training.

Online Space Portals

On the hobby end of the learning resource spectrum are public space media and amateur enthusiast websites that provide easily accessible news and frequently updated space information. Some of the more popular ones include NASA-centric space.com,  daily blog Universe Today,  UNESCO/International Astronomical Union initiative Portal to the Universe , space news snippet site Space Daily, and long-running site HobbySpace.  Also popular audio sources include the NASA driven Third Rock Radio and the daily podcast 365 Days of Astronomy. All of these present space science in an accessible manner to a general adult audience while linking to other similar websites, in a seemingly never-ending constellation of space information resources.

For artists wanting to broaden or refresh their science skills in a slightly more formal manner without returning to a brick-and-mortar institution, there are a number of courses available for free online. Khan Academy, a dynamic not-for-profit school offers a variety of visually appealing video classes on cosmology and astronomy. Stanford University driven Udacity.com offers beginner and refresher mathematics and physics college courses. In addition to the excellent price (free), the structure of the interactive and engaging video courses allows each student to work at their own pace from the comfort of their own home or studio. This is a real bonus, considering that most artists thrive on flexibility. YouTube can also be an excellent online educational resource, if an artist has the self-discipline not to get distracted by puppies-dressed-as-kittens videos, and is willing to trawl through the ocean of sci-fi and opinion pieces that accompany a search for space science topics. The Space School series by ScienceChannel is an example of a solid learning tool that can be found amidst a sea of random spacey videos.

Another useful type of online resource includes information targeted at current educators within the arena of space.  The Astronomy Education Review has a wealth of information that can help an artist understand their role in space science education. Zoë Buck ‘s paper, The Effect of Color Choice on Learner Interpretation of a Cosmology Visualization is one such example in a wide variety of educational information that can be read online or downloaded as a PDF to add to the artists’ toolkit. Another useful educator’s resource can be found at CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science. While CurioCity’s facade is more cartoonish, attempting to appeal to all ages, it nevertheless packs some great educational resources in the Educator Community section, from which artists can benefit.

Artists wanting to learn from the experience of other space-savvy artists or looking to partner with scientists can also benefit from joining online forums or participating in online art/space science groups, such as the informal International Space Art Network, the more distinguished Leonardo organization, or the grassroots S.A.G.A.N. Network.

A More Personal Approach

For those wanting to get offline and learn in person, participating in local space outreach events such as Yuri’s Night (an annual global space party) is a great way to start. Larger, more established organizations such as the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada have local chapters that often provide open venues for learning. Many space agencies have visitor centres that provide insight and learning into the space sciences to the general public. In addition, local science centres, museums and galleries are sources for space-themed events and exhibitions that are equally accessible and educational for artists.

Universities are a great resource for general space science learning. Astronomical observatories located on university campuses regularly give public tours, and physics and astronomy departments will often run a series of public lectures on cosmology during the school year. Colleges also frequently host art/science symposiums, conventions, and workshops which sometimes contain a space-themed component within the larger art/science umbrella. The recent 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art at the University of Sydney, Australia is an example of such an event.

Artists who wish to study space science in great depth within a structured environment, without going into a strictly scientific program, also have a surprisingly wide variety of options. They can enter one of many interdisciplinary programs open to artists interested in space science. International Space University offers both a 9-week summer program and a longer Master’s program open to artists. More general science/art incubators such as Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry, the newer PSL University in Paris, France, The Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, and the Art Science Research Lab in New York, offer opportunities to bring together art and space science research. In February, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and The Banff Centre announced a partnership that will also enable art-science collaboration and research. These are just a few of the many art/science research platforms springing up in what appears to be a swell of support for interdisciplinary artist-scientist partnership.

While space science may seem like an impossibly challenging subject for an artist with a limited science background, the opportunities for learning support are numerous. In fact, the amount of accessible educational resources out there is almost overwhelming. Having to dig through the choices can leave the artist with a big, colourful mess of art-science possibilities. Nevertheless, with a little organization in terms of desired platform and level of commitment, the potential for support becomes radiantly clear.

Join Renate for the free online teleseminar How to Launch Your Art into Space on July 19, or register to receive the free recording:  www.artspaceport.com

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