YUAG initiative targets STEM students

The initiative intends to focus on the overlap between science and the arts
to provide benefits for students on both sides of the divide.
The initiative intends to focus on the overlap between science and the arts to provide benefits for students on both sides of the divide. Photo by Kamaria Greenfield .

In an effort to get Yale’s science, math and engineering students out of the lab and into the galleries, the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) has founded a student-led STEM + Arts initiative.

Now in its second semester, the STEM + Arts initiative aims to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics students to take advantage of the University’s art collections and develop new ways of viewing their academic fields. Each week, Chanthia Ma ’16, an intern at the YUAG who co-founded the initiative, organizes sketching sessions and tours of the gallery catering specifically to math and science students. Though the program is still small, Ma said she hopes it will continue to gain momentum in the future.

“We think that an artistic background could help scientists pursue their future goals and be able to develop new skills that they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to develop,” said Ma, who is a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major. “Organic chemistry isn’t going to take you to the art gallery.”

The idea for the program took root last spring, when David Odo, former Bradley Assistant Curator of Academic Affairs at the YUAG and director of the initiative, spoke with a former student who was interested in researching STEM collaborations in museums around the country, Odo said in an email. Odo and the student discovered that while other galleries had instituted programs that combined science and arts, these programs had focused on asking scientists to notice the artistic elements of science — for example, finding the beauty in microscopic images.

The STEM + Arts initiative is different, Odo said, adding that it is the first of its kind. Rather than asking STEM majors to find illustrations of scientific principles in art, it encourages them to appreciate the collections of the gallery simply as artwork, he said. This way, he hopes the scientists will be able to shed new light on the University’s collections, he added.

For Lucy Partman ’14, a student curator at the Yale Center for British Art who brainstormed ideas with Odo at the inception of the initiative, this mutual exchange of insight is exactly why the arts and sciences should not be viewed as completely disparate fields.

“If science and art could somehow be more integrated and thought of as pieces that work together, we’d learn more,” Partman said. “What are scientists going to see in a painting that an art historian won’t see? And what will an art historian see in a microscopic image that the scientist won’t see? At the heart of it, both artists and scientists are trained to observe.”

Ma said exposure to art may help science students in the sciences as well, honing their critical thinking, observation and presentation skills. Though Ma is a biology major, she said her artistic background and training have helped her in many ways, from visualizing three-dimensional objects in multivariable calculus to drawing effective scientific diagrams.

Another goal of the initiative is to make STEM students feel like they belong in an art gallery, Partman said. While many science majors may have an interest in the arts, they might be afraid to venture to a museum because they think they have no right to be there, she said. With sketching sessions and tours directed specifically at math and science students, these fears can be alleviated, she added.

Ma said she has about 20 students on her weekly email list about events, adding that the initiative is gradually attracting more attention. Both students and professors have contacted her, expressing interest and even a desire to collaborate, she said.

Although Odo left Yale last week to take a new position at the Harvard Art Museums and Ma’s internship will officially end in May, Ma said she will continue to organize events in the future.

“It definitely takes time for people to notice that an activity is prevalent on campus,” Ma said. “There is so much potential for this program to fuel the interest of people who are purely science-oriented.”

Founded in 1832, the YUAG is free and open to the public.

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