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Fostering Environmental Awareness from a Young Age: A

Case Study from the IGES Art Contest

earthzine.org /2013/01/22/fostering-environmental-awareness-from-a-young-age-a-case-study-from-the-iges-

Schwerin 1/22/2013

Theresa Schwerin, Laura Delgado Lpez and Brandi

Institute for Global Environmental Strategies


Capturing and understanding our environment through art

is as ancient as the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave
paintings, and as modern as the latest satellite
technologies. Throughout history, we have seen the
environment and nature showcased in various ways
sacred Native American art, landscapes by J.M.W. Turner
and photographs by Ansel Adams. Satellites have offered
a new perspective. Satellite images often showcase the
beauty of our planet and have emerged as a meaningful
way to engage the public. In June 2012, NASA
announced the publics top five favorites in the Earth as
Art collection, composed of images taken from the
Landsat series of Earth observation satellites during its
40-year history. And in November 2012, the agency
published Earth as Art, featuring images from several
environmental satellites, including Landsat, Terra, Aqua,
and Earth Observing-1 (EO-1). This popular collection
brings forth the beauty and diversity of the planet through
remotely sensed data, with color-enhanced imagery
revealing features and patterns not always visible to the
naked eye.

While artistic representations of the Earth can engage The 2012 First Place Winner: "Wetlands: A Heaven of Wildlife" by Phoebe
Chiu, Grade 3, Ohio.
people of all ages, art can specifically be used as a
creative gateway to learning about science and the
environment for young students. In a recent study, early childhood researcher Kumara Tarr found that arts-based
pedagogies were effective for teaching young children about the natural world, and observed children had enhanced
understanding and expanded environmental awareness, in particular , new ideas about the care and nurture of
environmental features with which they identified [1].

Tapping into childrens imaginations and natural curiosity about their world can also help them develop the skills
necessary to be successful in science. Observing, measuring, visualizing, designing, experimenting and
communicating are just some of the shared connections between science and art. Exposing students to science
through visualization integrates science into a students understanding of the world [2]. In a similar manner, art can
serve as an introduction to the scientific process: students are asked to observe the world, visualize their artistic
piece, draft designs, perhaps draw some sketches to experiment with what will and will not work in the piece, and
judge if the result accurately communicates the information they intended to present [3]. In addition, art-based
activities can help students comprehend abstract scientific theories and improve their critical thinking skills, [4] as
students have to integrate different scientific facts to create a coherent, concise image.

Since 1996, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), a Virginia-based nonprofit that advances Earth
and space science education and environmental monitoring, has sponsored a national science and art contest for
students in second through fourth grades throughout the U.S. [5]. This article discusses the lessons identified and
learned throughout the 17 years of the contest, including valuable feedback from teachers and parents, which may
be relevant to the development of programs using art and science as a way to educate children about the
environment and to foster greater environmental awareness.

The 2011 First Place Winner: From Rain to Sunshine by Larry

Huang, Grade 3, Washington. All images courtesy IGES.

The 2009 First Place Winner: Rainforest: Tigers Home by

Shaina Chen, Grade 4, California.

The 2005 First Place Winner: Interlocking Relationship Between

Plants, Water, Animals, and Humans by Erica Esders, Grade 4,

The 2005 First Place Winner: Interlocking Relationship Between

Plants, Water, Animals, and Humans by Erica Esders, Grade 4,

The 2004 First Place Winner: Volcanologists Can Study

Volcanoes Up Close or From a Distance by Margaret OMeara,
Grade 2, Virginia.

The 2012 Second Place Winner: Exploring Natures Beauty by

Samantha Lee, Grade 4, Virginia.

The 2006 Third Place Winner: The Life and Story of Antarctica by
Jimmy Dawley, Grade 4, Texas.

The 2008 Second Place Winner The Earths Lung by Michelle

Minzhi Li, Grade 3, California.

The 2008 Third Place Winner: Trees Provide So Much by Joseph

Le-en Chiu, Maryland.

The IGES Art Contest: A Case Study

The annual IGES Art Contest was established as an innovative way to engage young students in thinking about the
environment, and began as a means to generate art for IGESs annual holiday card. Children were invited to think
about and draw their favorite thing about the environment, and in response to feedback from teachers, the contest
quickly evolved to a more specific theme that could support elementary education. While having a theme helped to
focus students artwork, the theme needed to be broad enough so teachers had the flexibility to integrate the contest
into their curriculum. Feedback from teachers included ideas for
themes, such as climate zones, which would allow them to
integrate geography, science, reading and art.

As it evolved, the annual contest has had a different theme each

year to encourage students to develop greater awareness about
the environment by learning about different parts of our Earth, our
relation to the changing planet, and how we explore it. Recent
themes include Wonders of Weather: What Do You See? in 2011,
Habitat: Imagine That! in 2009, and Connect 4: Air, Land, Water
and Life in 2005.

The contest is aligned to U.S. national science and art education

standards and it provides a framework designed for teachers or
parents to engage students in the theme for initial guiding
questions, resources and classroom activities. Students use
books, websites, videos and other resources to research the
contest theme, and then use their new knowledge to create an
image showing what they have learned.

A panel of artists, scientists and IGES staff members judges the

entries. Each year, the hundreds of entries received are carefully
cataloged, then considered with several criteria in mind including
adherence to the theme, artistic quality, scientific accuracy and
theme-related standards.

Lessons Learned

Throughout the years, IGES has received positive feedback from

teachers and parents who have contributed to the contest. Several
teachers have incorporated the contest in their lesson plans and
often make participation a regular part of the school year.

Developing a connection with nature

For many young students, particularly those in urban areas, the

world may not extend beyond their immediate environment. These
students often have difficulty seeing how remote environmental
regions and issues might have an impact on their lives. Students
can expand their horizons and connect to far-away places through
researching, reflecting on and visualizing these areas. The
Internet, videos and books can also connect children to places they
have not, or cannot, experience firsthand.

The IGES Art Contest presents an opportunity for students to

explore new topics individually and with their classmates as they
learn about the contests theme. Consider the following anecdote
from a Mississippi art teacher, whose class participated in the 2007
contest, Exploring the Ocean from Top to Bottom!

During our studies, I turned my art classroom into an underwater environment. Every day we
watched the live Web cameras online at the Monterey Bay
Aquarium while we drew ocean pictures. I also added
some blue tissue paper to some of the windows and we
listened to the oceans theme music which was
incorporated into the aquarium website. The links provided
were great resources and I will continue to use them to
extend this unit in the future.

Throughout this unit, I was surprised by the genuine sparks

of interest and the creativity expressed in the students
projects. They have shown a real desire to explore the
subject further

I chose this art contest this school year to soothe student

fears of the sea after more than 200 of our students were
left homeless by [Hurricane] Katrina. However, our
students didnt show a great fear of the ocean. Instead,
these units have created a deep interest andeven a love
of the sea for these students. [6]

Evidence of students making a personal connection to the subject

can also be seen when the children include themselves in the
scene they draw. Certain themes invite this kind of connection,
such as the 2004 theme Picture Me: What Kind of Earth Scientist
Would I Be? Students were asked to consider how they would
study the world, if they made it the subject of their career. In
subsequent years, students occasionally have submitted artwork
that places shows themselves, or others, investigating or
interacting with the environment.

Addressing Misconceptions

Art can serve as a tool to address students nave conceptions or

misconceptions. For example, the theme for the 2006 contest was
Polar Explorations: Going to Extremes, which was selected to
coincide with the International Polar Year. In preparing for the
contest, IGES identified common elementary student
misconceptions related to polar science and regions, which was
provided as background information for teachers, along with
student books, websites and movies, chosen to reinforce the
intended understanding.

The artwork that was received demonstrated that students could

grasp and depict the intended understanding. For example, in The
Life and Story of Antarctica third place winner Jimmy Dawley
shows a biodiverse and active environment with several animals
interacting in the scene. Included in the background also is a
building where people can work to help advance our understanding
of the region.

Assessing Student Understanding and Progress

Teachers can use an artistic assignment of this nature at the

beginning and end of a lesson or unit to assess student
understanding of a subject. Art activities can provide a wide range
of significant opportunities for using scientific ideas interpretatively
in ways which make them meaningful [8].

Teachers wishing to incorporate this kind of project into their

lessons could ask students to draw what they already know about
a topic. These initial depictions can help identify misconceptions or
knowledge gaps on the subject and can help the teacher frame the
discussion toward addressing these issues. After reading and
learning about the subject in class, students are asked once more
to draw what they know about the subject. This presents an
opportunity to engage the class in a discussion about how the
images are different and how their understanding of the subject has
evolved. One New Jersey teacher, whose students participated in
the 2008 Trees: Making a World of Difference contest, said the
students did their own research about trees around the world and
were amazed at the variety of species. [9]

The exercise also can be used to identify subjects or concepts that

students are having a harder time understanding. For example, in
2011 IGES received several submissions for the Wonders of
Weather contest theme that depicted tsunamis, which are not a
type of weather. These art pieces could have been used to begin a
discussion with students about the differences between
atmospheric phenomena unique to weather and other natural
events, such as tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Research by the University of Georgia on using art in

environmental education evaluation [10] revealed that higher
environmental affinity and awareness corresponded with higher art
rubric scores.
Their research
implies that
using art in
evaluation could help educators identify childrens
preconceptions and misconceptions, and that art evaluations
may provide new insight into environmental education

Making contests relevant to educational curriculum

While many of the contest participants take part in the contest

through programs like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and art clubs,
the majority of entries are submitted as class projects. An
elementary classroom in particular provides an environment
where a multidisciplinary approach can easily be used to
integrate subjects. The nature of the contest and the provided resources allow teachers to incorporate elements of
scientific understanding, visual-spatial relationships in art and reading for comprehension.

Contest themes are selected to incorporate national science standards for second, third and fourth grades. The
2012 biodiversity theme, The Worlds A Place of Living Things!, drew on standards the diversity of life and systems,
content standards identified in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061 .
Visual arts education standards also provide an opportunity to incorporate environmental science into the
elementary curriculum. The Visual Arts Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools exemplifies this by
requiring their students to identify distinguishing characteristics of landscape, seascape, and cityscape [11]. Science
and art teachers can develop plans for their classes or collaborate to more fully integrate the lessons of each
subject, and stress how art and science inform one another.


Art can serve as an effective tool to introduce and engage young students in science and the environment. Built
around an annual theme developed to align the concepts and subjects taught in the elementary classroom, the IGES
Art Contest has contributed to expanding students awareness and interest in the environment. When incorporated
in lesson plans, artistic exercises such as the IGES contest can help support and assess student understanding of
complex subjects, such as habitat, biodiversity and weather. The lessons learned through IGES experience
implementing this contest can serve as a starting point for others who wish to develop programs aimed at using art
to introduce students to scientific subjects.


[1] K. Tarr, Enhancing environmental awareness through the arts Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 33,
No. 3, pp. 19-26, Sept. 2008.

[2] S. Halpine, Introducing Molecular Visualization to Primary Schools in California: The STArt! Teaching Science
Through Art Program. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 81, No. 10, pp. 1431-1436, Oct. 2004.

[3] K. Rommel-Esham, Do You See What I See? An artful approach to introducing science-process skills. Science
and Children, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 40-43, Sept. 2005.

[4] R. Alberts. (2008, Dec.) Discovering Science Through Art-Based Activities, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.
[Online]. Available: http://beyondpenguins.ehe.osu.edu/issue/earths-changing-surface/discovering-science-through-

[5] Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Art Contest. (2012, Dec.) [Online]. Available:

[6] S. Thames, correspondence with Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Dec. 2007.

[7] National Research Council. National Science Education Standards, 1996. [PDF Document]. Available:

[8] M. Wenham, Art and Science in Education: The Common Ground. Journal of Art & Design Education, Vol. 17,
No. 1, pp. 61-70, 1998.

[9] K. Chencharik, correspondence with Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Oct. 2008.

[10] A. Flowers, L.R. Larson, G. T. Green, J. P. Carroll, & A. Shenk, Using art in environmental education program
evaluation, presented at the North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Conference. Raleigh,
NC, Oct. 12-15, 2011. [Poster]

[11] Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia. (2000). Visual Arts Standards of Learning for Virginia Public
Schools (2000) [PDF Document] Available: