The Art of Science

STEM professors infuse science classes with Escher, opera, and kimchi

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Mon, 02/13/2017 - 12:17

When Seth Foreman’s students examine sketches by artist M.C. Escher or contemplate the overtones of a Debussy prelude for piano, it’s not part of an art appreciation course — they’re learning physics.

In Loading..., a name inspired by PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, Assistant Professor Foreman uses art to teach students about sound, light, color, and how the brain perceives them. The students dive into the science behind Escher’s mind-bending art, learn how strings produce sound, discover how cameras work, and hear how whoopee cushions can be turned into an instrument.

The class is just one example of how USF faculty teach students to embrace both art and science, blending subjects like physics and photography, chemistry and cooking, and neuroscience and opera. 

“People usually see art and science as the ultimate ‘apples versus oranges’ comparison of two totally dissimilar pursuits,” says Foreman, who also plays classical piano. “But science is intimately entwined with all of the beauty we can produce, from the colors of a stained glass window to the sounds of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.”

Lesson with side of lunch

In chemistry Professor Tami Spector’s Loading... class, students whip up a dish almost every session: ice cream, bread, kimchi. 

Amid the noshing, students learn important lessons about chemistry, biology, and physics, like how microwaves work or the physiology of the plants we eat. In a session on the biochemistry of caffeine, for example, Spector brings in several kinds of tea and explains how more fermentation in the production process results in the darkest, least astringent, and most caffeinated teas.

“For chemistry majors my course brings them back to why they chose to be scientists in the first place,” says Spector, an amateur cook who is on the board of Leonardo: International Society for Art, Sciences and Technology, a nonprofit promoting interdisciplinary work between the arts and sciences. “It gives them a chance to get back to the sense of childlike play and curiosity they might have had prior to diving deeply into — and often struggling with — abstract things like organic chemistry and quantum mechanics.”

What makes us human?

Meanwhile students in Adjunct Professor Indre Viskontas’ psychology classes get a taste of a different kind of art: opera. Viskontas, in addition to being a neuroscientist, is a professional opera singer, performing in Europe and North America as a soprano in productions like Susannah and La Bohème.  

Viskontas often invites students to opera and other musical performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to demonstrate concepts like how music can illustrate the psychological experience of time and memory. Research shows that if you’re emotionally moved by a live piece of music, for example, your memories will be more vivid and you’ll feel like the experience lasted longer than it actually did because you were paying close attention, she says. 

“Scientists and artists really have the same goal: to understand what makes us human,” she says. “Scientists look for general principles that apply to everyone; artists use their individual experiences to highlight what’s common between us.”

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