Conversations with Stephanie Bailey: Tackling physics students’ uncertainty through art

Physics. It’s a field that is as pragmatic as it is profound. It’s also a subject that can be challenging and, at times, discouraging for many people, particularly for some Life Science students. The formula – heavy approach to understanding its concepts can feel heavy and opaque. It’s like drinking a pint full of mud. That’s why Stephanie Bailey’s recent book, Teaching Physics with Student-Made Art, is such a welcome approach to introducing otherwise complex concepts. It’s visually appealing and presented in a way that allows students to take a step back, breath, and approach physics from a less stressful place. The book also demonstrates that there’s more to physics than variables, constants, and uncertainty.

Where did the idea for Teaching Physics with Student-Made Art come from?

Despite efforts to attract a broader student population into physics, introductory physics courses remain a deterrent for many students. The motivation for this book is to make introductory physics more accessible and to increase interest in the subject by incorporating art-based teaching at the undergraduate level. By providing an alternate mental pathway to access physics, students can improve their understanding and deepen their personal connection with this often-impersonal subject. Additionally, by taking a visual approach to the study of physics, we can achieve a more inclusive way of teaching.

This art provides students opportunities to make meaningful connections between the things that matter to them most in their personal lives and the physics they need to learn. Such connections are intended to enable students to identify the utility of learning physics, positively influence their feelings about physics, and hopefully support the development of their interest in physics.

Why were Life Science majors chosen for the book, as opposed to other types of science majors?

In college, life science majors tend to start out with an unfavorable outlook on physics and think they’ll never use physics later on. Many of them have already taken a physics class in high school and didn’t like it the first time around. In fact, the national trend shows that college student attitudes become even more negative by the end of taking a physics class. I want to increase their understanding of the subject by making it relevant to what their hobbies, interests, and personal lives. In the end, I’d like my students to think that physics is actually sort of cool.

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Can you discuss the notion of “providing an alternate mental pathway to access physics”? What are the advantages of this approach?

We have so many physics textbooks written in a traditional format, with equations, graphs, charts, text, and images. The images are usually produced by a graphic designer or illustrator with no background in physics, at the direction of the author. The images are computer-made, precise, and perfect. They are void of emotions and feelings and have no flaws or defects. They are not art but rather technical illustrations. In contrast, the artistic representations in this book draw readers in. Student readers can relate to the imperfections, stories, themes, angst, and humor in the art.

Having students draw their own artistic representation of a difficult physics concept allows them to express themselves in a more free, open-ended, personal, and meaningful way than other conventional methods. Ideas and connections gained by looking at physics artistically can lead a student to look at and think about the subject matter in different ways and to think outside the box. In this way, students develop their own voice in physics and deepen their personal connection with the subject matter.

Additionally, visual art is a powerful resource for mental and physical well-being. It has been shown that visual art interventions have stabilizing effects such as reducing stress, increasing self-reflection and self-awareness, altering behavior and thinking patterns, and normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. In a subject that tends to provoke anxiety, stress, feelings of inadequacy, and dread among non-majors, integration of art in the physics classroom is a much needed approach.

It is also worth noting that many young people are naturally inclined to both art and science. But in academia, students must pick a degree in art or science and stick to that side of the fence. Academia fails to recognize that the same spirit and methodologies underlie both art and science and that science and science learning are not complete without the arts. There are many examples in history of medical advancements inspired by art. For example, the stethoscope was invented by a French flautist/physician named René Laennec who recorded his first observations of heart sounds in musical notation. We often hear about cutting-edge work that’s done by pairing up artists and scientists. In fact, I spearheaded one such collaboration in 2019 called “The Fusion of Art and Physics” in Santa Cruz, California (https://slbailey109.wixsite.com/fusion). I matched almost 20 local artists with physics graduate students and faculty at UC Santa Cruz. The idea was to inspire exciting art based on scientific ideas, to foster stronger communication skills among our physicists resulting from engagement with a non-specialist, to challenge our physicists to approach their science in a slightly different way (through the visual arts), to integrate art and science such that they feed back and forth to each other, enriching each other, and to increase recognition of the mutual benefits of art and science.

The illustrations and accompanying descriptions range from whimsical and clever to deeply personal and touching. Are there any that stand out to you?

I was deeply and profoundly touched by the work of student Caden Biggs. Caden used his personal journey with gender identity to depict electric fields. His story humanizes electric particles and makes physics relevant, inviting, and less intimidating to the random student. In sharing a story about himself and drawing on his own personal experiences, Caden personally connects with the subject matter and develops more meaning behind the complex scientific idea.

The work of student Katherine Hoffman also stands out. Katherine explains that the sign convention of electric fields due to point particles is difficult to remember (electric field vectors point away from positive point charges and toward negative point charges). I didn’t fully appreciate this until I viewed Katherine’s work. To remember this sign convention, she made up electric field girls “Positive Polly” and “Negative Nancy.” Positive Polly “wants to spread her positive attitude out to everyone” while Negative Nancy “wants to keep her negative attitude in to herself.”

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What did you learn about how students approach physics by working on Teaching Physics with Student-Made Art?

I learned that students can be exceptional teachers when they relate a difficult or abstract course topic to something that has personal meaning to them through art. The art in this book conveys principles of physics through personal stories that range from gender identity to politics to relationships to popular culture. The art is emotional, raw, and imperfect. It includes perspectives from groups traditionally absent from physics and provides a fuller and more accurate portrayal of the subject. In doing so, the book communicates to students that multiple views are valued and respected. Readers can relate to the characters, scenes, cartoons, and analogies depicted in the art. Among the many different emotions, the art provokes humor, love, hate, sadness, and fear. The cumulative effect is more meaningful and engaged learning for all students.

What do you want your readers —teachers and students — to take away from your book.

Every real-world problem spans disciplinary boundaries and cuts across multiple dimensions of human life. These dimensions include material, economic, environmental, social, cultural, technical, political, medical, aesthetic, and moral. To address the grand challenges of our time requires a full range of human knowledge and creativity, including the artistic, humanistic, scientific, technological, and medical, and the intersections among them. According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, scientific expertise in isolation offers an essential but incomplete foundation for guiding humanity’s future. Similarly, artistic engagement that neglects scientific and technological dimensions offers an incomplete picture. To quote the embryologist, dancer, and artist Conrad Hal Waddington, “The acute problems of the world can be solved only by whole men, not by people who refuse to be, publicly, anything more than a technologist, or a pure scientist, or an artist.” An educational approach that teaches students to see the disciplines as separate and nonoverlapping domains may hinder students to think beyond the limits of what has already been thought.

Finally, is there another installment in the works?

Yes, this book focuses on the subject of electricity and is the first in a series of introductory physics topics. I’m currently working on the second volume about waves and optics. The third volume will focus on Newtonian mechanics. More advanced topics will be covered in volume four which will feature the work of artist and physicist pairs from my 2019 collaboration “The Fusion of Art and Physics” (https://slbailey109.wixsite.com/fusion).

Purchase a copy of Teaching Physics with Student-Based Art here. For more information about Stephanie Bailey, visit her Chapman University page.

IMAGE SOURCE: Stephanie Bailey

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