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Vanishing boundaries between science and art: modelling effective middle years of schooling practice in pre-service science education.

This paper describes an innovation in science pre-service education that endeavours to increase student engagement in learning and doing science in the middle years through integrating science, mathematics and art.


Imagine the perfect middle school scenario for teaching young adolescent students science. What would it look like in an ideal world? Tytler (2007) in Re-imagining Science Education argues that science education in Australia is in a state of crisis in terms of diminishing numbers of students undertaking science related studies in post compulsory years. The review reports that students in the middle years indicate that "science is a subject that delivers non negotiable abstract knowledge tending to use authoritarian and narrow pedagogy which is arguable insensitive to students needs" p. 12. The effect of the traditional science teaching in middle years is that students fail to see the relevance of science for their lives and futures and fail to engage in meaningful learning.

What strategies would provide meaningful learning? By blurring the boundaries between science, mathematics and art, the authors, a university science educator and a practising artist model one strategy to maximise student engagement and learning. The project involved fourth year undergraduate students working collaboratively with the artist to research, design and paint a mural depicting science and mathematics images. This paper uses emerging themes from current middle school literature as the theoretical framework. The mural project is described followed by photographs and description of the three panels.

What the middle school literature says

There are two key sections. Firstly, a focus on the characteristics of the middle school teacher and secondly, pedagogical practices that emerge from the literature as being crucial to effective learning in middle schools.

Effective middle school teachers (years 6-9) ensure students engage in purposeful, intellectually challenging learning. Characteristics of these teachers include positive self concepts, flexibility and spontaneity. They also demonstrate warmth and knowledge of subject matter. If these are the characteristics of teachers who teach in the middle years, the question is how can university undergraduate courses best prepare primary/middle school students with a passion for science and mathematics and a passion to teach young adolescents.

Key themes and strategies consistently emerge from middle school literature about best pedagogical practice. They include developing strong relationships, being community orientated and focusing on ethical awareness. Strategies include a focus on student-centred learning and providing opportunities for collaborative tasks. Teachers are encouraged to work in interdisciplinary teaching teams to develop integrated curricula that is connected to student life worlds (Barrett, 1998; Beane, 1995; Carrington, 2004; Chadbourne, 2001; Groundwater-Smith, Mitchell & Mockler, 2007). These key themes and strategies, which Carrington (2004, p.71) calls 'signature practices', are appropriate for both teacher and student learner. Our challenge as academic staff in science and mathematical pre service education is to model some of these sound pedagogical practices and signature practices. An opportunity arose with a final year science and mathematics class.

Primary/middle program

The primary/middle program at the University of South Australia prepares students to be generalist teachers with two areas of specialisation. Therefore, as well as their compulsory curriculum courses in seven learning areas (including mathematics and science) they complete four general studies in each of two areas. In the first semester fourth year, students select a professional pathway based on one of these areas of expertise, that leads to a final five-week practicum placement in the second semester. In 2007 there were fifteen students who opted for the science, mathematics and society and environment pathway. The pathway involves students in both off-campus and on-campus components. The off-campus component involves students participating in professional development sessions provided by professional associations, and undertaking a place-based placement in an urban ecological setting. The on-campus component involves students in sessions on eco-literacy; thinking and working scientifically, mathematically and environmentally, student life worlds; funds of knowledge; social sustainability and integral philosophy. For the school component, they spend their time in a secondary school observing lessons and becoming familiar with the setting. Developing expertise on Interactive Whiteboards, and constructing long-term teaching plans and short-term transdisciplinary topics were also part of the course.

It was decided as a culminating activity to the science and mathematics pathway course to invite an artist to work with the students on science/mathematics related murals. This move models good middle school pedagogy by integrating learning areas (in this case science and art) and working in interdisciplinary teams. Using different ways of knowing to see the world has the potential of contributing to deeper learning and supports Sterling's (2002) ecological view of the world that emphasises relationships, connections and patterns, rather than unconnected fragments of learning. The science aspect of the murals has involved the identification, observation and recording of indigenous flora, representation of the solar system in all its complexity, and mathematics themes that encourages students to think broadly about mathematics in their daily life. This approach of searching, designing and creating murals fits well with the middle school approach to teaching and learning. It is an example of how the rigour of all three learning areas, science, mathematics and visual arts, can be maintained to contribute to deeper understanding of the world in which the students live.

The students were involved in collecting science and mathematics images and, with the artist's expertise, representing these in a three-panel mural to be placed in the passageway of the School of Education building. The intention was that by involving students in the process, as beginning teachers of science and mathematics, they would take this integrating practice into their classrooms.

The project

With the relocation three years ago of the School of Education to the Mawson Lakes Campus, the Science and Mathematics Education team moved into a new building with the task of gradually transforming it into a recognisable science and mathematics learning environment. We believed that painting murals with the help of an artist would help this transformation process. In consultation with the artist it was decided to complete three panels six metres in length, one outside each of the three tutorial rooms. The focus of each panel was negotiated. We were keen to ensure the learning areas were represented. The general study being taught in semester 2 was Astronomy and the Universe. Hence the first panel depicted the solar system and aspects of space technology. The second panel represented the indigenous (pre- European arrival) plants and landscape of the site now occupied by the University. The third panel focused on mathematics. Staff and students were invited to collect images. Tutorial time was used to discuss possibilities and record options. The sketchy images produced during this session were recorded with a digital camera and sent to the artist.

The role of the artist, as we defined it in this project, was to compile the gathered data and design and coordinate the painting of the murals. The project took about four days to complete. Students and lecturers came in when they were free to help paint the murals temporarily located in the science laboratory which became an art studio for the four days.

Having worked as an art teacher and as an artist in residence in schools for more than thirty years the artist's role, as well as coordinating the painting of the mural, was also to explain the value of undertaking such a task and to encourage these future teachers to consider tackling murals or larger scale paintings in a class/school situation.

The murals

Panel 1 The Solar System

The solar system images were collected by students and staff involved in a general studies course, 'Astronomy and the Universe'. Our resident astronomer dropped in and returned the following week to check the accuracy of the panel and also to help paint.

It was not possible to represent the planets using any realistic scale. However, a range of objects were included--planets, nebulae, stars and phases of the moon, as well as one space probe; the 'Voyager' that was at the time beaming back new and very useful information on our heavenly neighbours. One student spent hours with a brush painting stars. Due to the scale it was decided not to identify constellations--perhaps a future mural project.


There was much excitement as students painted (figure 1) and topics of conversations focused around what they knew about the night sky. There was one instance where visiting students asked a question concerning the order of the planets. Someone came out with the mnemonic, My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas to remember the order of the planets, Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune and Pluto,(even though Pluto had just been re classified as not being a planet). This panel has been placed above the first science and mathematics tutorial room and attracts comment from students and staff (figure 2)

Panel 2: Natural World--Indigenous Plants and landscape Mural

Moving campus and, adapting to a new constructed environment involved significant change for all. The question arose. "What was here before we came?" How are the cycles of the seasons evident in our new place? Within our new constructed environment it is less obvious. The idea of focusing on the natural environment was to help us connect to the once natural place students and staff now work in every day. Suzuki and Vanderlinden (2001) stress the importance of connecting to the natural world, and its links with our health and wellbeing. Daniels and Tait (2006) also suggests that people/students connected to nature are more inclined to look after it for future. Hence the subtle message within the design--the surveyor's post as a symbol of the human impact. This image on the mural indicates that change through the eyes of a developer is not far away. The words 'tread lightly' are a subtle reminder to us all, as we spend our days in air-conditioned artificially-lit classrooms that we can make personal decisions to reduce our ecological footprint.


A pathways student had previously completed a national parks degree and had an excellent background in flora and fauna. His research and knowledge provided the following information about the vegetation found on the t Mawsons Lakes site prior to the campus being built about 30 years ago.

The Mawson Lakes Campus location is classified as grasslands. The main plants included grasses and sedges such as spear grasses (Stipa spp) and wallaby grass (Danthonia spp) (Carbobrothesrossii Noack). Golden wattle (figure 3), riceflower, red river gums, salt bush (figure 4) and succulents were also prevalent. The mural has included these plants, as well as a blue- tongue lizard, which is a reptile native to the area. The soil is described as red brown earth (red brown clay to red brown sandy clay); the landscape as grassy plains (figure 5).

Panel 3: The Mathematics Mural

The images for the mathematics panels were collected by staff and students from personal experience and books such as Numbers, Facts, Figures and Fiction, (Phillips, 2004), Book of Numbers (Spencer, 2000), Numbers (Boyle & Roddick, 2004) and Footprints of the Future (Neville, 2002). Prior to the design of the mathematics mural we held a session where ideas were presented and images sketched on the whiteboard. It was these ideas that were presented to the artist. Turning this list and rough sketches into a sophisticated design was the key role of the artist.




Mathematics is often called the science of numbers and portrayed as unconnected to student life worlds. The university students were keen to present it in such a way as to show how mathematics is an integral part of their daily lives (figure 6) Playing cards, dice and the international barcode help explain how integral numbers, and other aspects of mathematics, are associated with our everyday existence. Leonardo da Vinci's Scale of Proportion and the Fibonacci Spiral show how pattern is evident in nature (figure 7).

As a social balance, extracts from a text were included. These extracts illustrate that if the world was reduced to a hundred people, what proportion would be educated, live in rural areas, have the majority of wealth etc. The numbers, through ratio, are used in a powerful way to examine disadvantage (figure 8). Questions such as 'Is it possible to know such things?' and 'who did the calculations?' are essential to a critical perspective (Forrest, 1997; Johnson, 1994; Scott, 2000).


We have modelled an approach to teaching and learning which engages students in purposeful, intellectually challenging learning experiences in science and mathematics. We would argue this approach encompasses sound middle schooling pedagogy. It particularly addresses the strategies identified at the beginning of the paper, such as focusing on student-centred learning and participation. Collaborative tasks were clearly evident, as shown in the photographs. Additionally, the project was undertaken by an interdisciplinary teaching team. There were students with a range of experiences, science educators, mathematics educators, society and environment educators, plant ecologists, astronomers and the artist. Drawing on such a breadth of expertise ensured the project was successfully completed. We believe we have been rigorous about the content of the murals, we have provided challenging and motivating learning experiences for the participants, and we have built relationships.

Carrington (2004, p. 170) argues that the 'best programs for contemporary early adolescents are going to be organic as these adolescents seek answers. They are going to be responsive to challenges and opportunities that arise in distinct sites. They will be global.' This project reflects and models an organic project that developed as students' interests and passions became evident. Without their enthusiasm and commitment to return many times outside required workshop times this project would not have been as educationally rich. Catching up with the students at the end of the year, it was amazing to hear that one student brought her mother in to see the murals. Evidence of a powerful learning experience. Future research with these students in their first few years as beginning teachers will determine the impact the project has had on their teaching of science.




We thought it appropriate that the last words come from the artist.

Artist statement

I saw this project as an opportunity to both visually enhance a new stark learning environment with some relevant themed murals: and more importantly to offer non arts-based future teachers the chance to paint on a large scale-learning the procedures and techniques of mural painting with the intention to introduce it in classrooms as a later date. It helps demystify the image that artists are often portrayed as in our world and show actual procedures in the construction of a public art piece.


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Beane, J. (1995). Curriculum Integration and the Disciplines of knowledge. Phi Delta Kappan, 00317217 Ap 195, Vol 76. Issue 8

Boyle, D., & Roddick, A. (2004). Numbers, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, USA Carrington, V. (2004). Rethinking the middle years. Early adolescents, schooling and digital culture. Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Chadbourne, R. (2001). Middle schooling for the Middle Years: What might the jury be considering? Melbourne: Australian Education Union.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (1997). Forest and Woodlands of the Adelaide Plains in 1836. A native vegetation planting guide. Poster

Daniels, C., & Tait, C. (2006). Adelaide Nature of a City. The Ecology of a Dynamic City from 1836-2036. Adelaide: Bio city Centre for Urban Habitats.

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Spencers, A. (2002). Book of numbers. Australia: Penguin Books,

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Tytler, R. (2007). Re-imagining Science Education: Engaging students in science for Australia's future. Australian Education Review. Australian Council for Educational Research.
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Title Annotation:hands on
Author:Paige, Kathryn; Whitney, John
Publication:Teaching Science
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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