'Art is a bridge to learning'

March 15, 2023

In the new Scientific Illustration art course, Dearborn Wolverines created pieces that focused on biology, botany and geology — and discovered how art can advance careers in health, conservation and more.

Photo of UM-Dearborn student in an EIC art exhibit
Senior Alexis Kott has multiple works of art on display in the Scientific Illustration Showcase, which is up through the end of April in the EIC lobby. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Dental students often take art classes, like calligraphy, for finger dexterity. Engineers and architects use illustration to visually highlight their projects to audiences. And studying art improves bedside manner — research found that medical students who study art are better able to interpret the emotional expressions on patients' faces.

“Art is a bridge to learning. These are just a few examples to show that you do not need to be an art major to benefit from studying art,” said Lecturer Madeleine Barkey, who teaches in the applied art/art history program. “Art also has a wellness component that will benefit you at work and at home. It gives us ways to express ourselves and alleviate stress.”

In short, art benefits everyone. And so does nature. Thinking about these two universally available mental health boosters, Barkey wanted to connect them to show students how closely aligned the two are.

To do this, Barkey created the course ART 327: Scientific Illustration. Students worked closely with subjects related to geology, biology and botany. For their last project, they created a layered anatomy of an animal. 

“Students in the class majored in biomedical engineering, environmental science, psychology, pre-health disciplines and more,” Barkey said. “They didn’t all see themselves as art students and were concerned that they wouldn’t deliver. By the end of the course, they were amazed at the level of work they produced."

Art in the Scientific Illustration Showcase by Bella Porbe and Keziah Eggert.
Art in the Scientific Illustration Showcase by Bella Porbe and Keziah Eggert.

Barkey, who wanted to expand her student’s experience beyond the university’s art studio, worked with UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Interpretive Center. The EIC provided the students with resources when they needed samples and references. Barkey and EIC then partnered with the class to showcase the work. The art exhibit “Scientific Illustration” is on display in the EIC’s lobby now through the end of April. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

EIC Program Supervisor Rick Simek said he’s impressed with the caliber of work in the show and encourages the campus community to take a look.

Simek also wants UM-Dearborn community members to know that EIC staff is available to share hands-on nature and environmental studies lessons and the EIC team welcomes ideas for course collaboration. “We are here as a resource for professors and students. We have classroom space, an observation room and acres of natural areas. Our natural areas have lessons that change by season, so there’s a lot of ground we can cover.” Interested? Let the EIC staff know.

Senior Alexis Kott is a student in the Scientific Illustration class. The urban and regional studies major dreams of designing cities and neighborhoods. And she is especially passionate about bringing green spaces to heavily developed areas.

Growing up in northern Michigan, Kott said the woods were just steps from her home. She’d birdwatch with her grandmother and hike with her father. And sometimes she’d be inspired to draw. A lily pad painting in grade school ended up in an art show at her local museum.

With her dad’s military career, Kott moved around a bit. With each move, she began to realize the lakes and woods that inspired her as a child weren’t a universal experience. She saw factories that lined bodies of water and neighborhood streets that had much more gray than green. 

“We need nature to live. If we embrace it, nature can provide a lot. It reduces pollution and improves mental health. If you don’t consider the environment when planning, there are consequences like poor air quality, flooding and decreased health outcomes,” Kott said. “Everyone should have access to parks, trees and greenspaces. One of my professional goals is to help make that happen.”

Kott, an applied art minor, said she uses art skills she’s learned from Barkey’s classes in her work. In addition to the Scientific Illustration course, Kott also took Barkey’s intermediate drawing class that allowed her to focus on her own interests, like architectural and perspective drawing.

Alexis Kott draws birds that she sees outside of the EIC observation room.
Alexis Kott draws birds that she sees outside of the EIC observation room.

Kott said potential employers in the city planning industry have told her that they like how she merges art and function. At a recent Michigan Association of Planning Conference, Kott interacted with city managers and planners. She’d talk about green infrastructure ideas for a community and share some of her artwork.

“Art is important in the urban planning field because it’s a language that helps people understand future projects no matter your age or background,” Kott said. “Even if your community members speak different languages, art can help communicate an idea clearly.”

But until graduation comes, Kott connects communities with nature by serving as a student naturalist at the EIC. She takes out elementary student groups to teach them about the land and nature’s benefits. She birdwatches with them in the observation room and even shows them her sketches.

A group of children on a field trip to the EIC recently told Kott that they’d never seen the woods. She said there was wonder in their faces as they looked for wildlife and viewed tapped maple trees that dripped sap for syrup.

Kott said she’s proud to be on a campus that provides that type of education and experience. After graduation, Kott’s goal is to take the lessons she’s learned from her time at UM-Dearborn and meet communities where they are by creating spaces outside of their homes that will evoke wonder, promote wellness and possibly even inspire a future career.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.