Carlos Museum uses art conservation to create high school science labs

By Leslie King | Emory Report | June 4, 2014

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Teachers from the Atlanta area gather for a workshop held at the Carlos Museum to explore connections between art conservation and teaching sciences. Photo courtesy Carlos Museum.

A partnership between the Michael C. Carlos Museum and Emory's Center for Science Education (CSE) is turning STEM into STEAM by injecting the arts into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics acronym STEM.

Reaching out to a wider education community, a team at the Carlos is providing Atlanta area teachers with science education resources. The collaboration also showcases the creativity, problem-solving and design-thinking aspects of scientific investigations, as well as skills and understanding needed in a variety of careers.

The Carlos team — consisting of conservators, an Emory student intern and a high school science teacher — developed hands-on activities for science labs on the high school level, based on art conservation projects.

The results live on a mini-site on the Carlos website — “Science & Art Conservation: Resources for Teachers” — with an "introduction to conservation" video as background for the world of art conservation.

The activities, known as problem-based learning units (PBLs), are designed for high school teachers of biology, chemistry and environmental science.

"There was clearly interest and enthusiasm in using conservation as a context for teaching science," said Carlos conservator Renée Stein, describing how the partnership and its results came about.

"I think one of the neat things about this project is not only the sort of stepwise way that it unfolded, but how essential each player was in contributing to what became, I think, a very usable out-product," she said. 

From labs to learning units

It all started in the summer of 2011. During a CSE teacher workshop funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a group of secondary school teachers went to the various research labs on campus, including Stein's lab at the Carlos.

"Then those teachers were asked to create learning units that they would use in their classrooms," Stein said. "When they presented their learning units, I went to hear what they had come up with. And it turned out that every teacher in the group chose to use the example that I had shown them in my lab as a hands-on activity.

"That one lab activity grew into a partnership with the Center for Science Education to develop more," she said.


The next summer, 2012, the CSE awarded DeKalb County science teacher Tiffany Smith an HHMI fellowship to be in the Carlos lab full time for six weeks, learning about the museum and conservation and about the intersection of science teaching with what conservators do in the lab.

At that same time, student Julia Commander '13C received the Carlos' Andrew W. Mellon internship. "Julia's knowledge of the museum's collections [and] knowledge of conservation were a great bridge to help Tiffany enter this world," Stein said.

So Smith and Commander spent the summer in the lab where, working with Stein and Assistant Conservator Katie Etre, they wrote teacher guides and student guides for eight different topics. 

Smith and Commander used photographs of objects from the museum to illustrate the topics covered: adhesives, corrosion, fibers, insects, paper, pigments, salts and wood.   

Then in the 2012 academic year, Smith tested some of these lab activities in her own high school chemistry and biology classes.

"As a classroom teacher, it is often difficult to get students to understand the correlation between science and the real world. Collaborating with the conservator team at the museum allowed me to bring the very real world of art conservation into my classroom,” Smith said.

Smith's real-world experience using the lab activities proved vital, Commander said.

"Tiffany helped to make sure that it was feasible in the classroom setting because we had a lot of ideas at the beginning and she helped us home in on which ones would really work and be effective in a classroom setting," she said.

Teaching the teachers

The successful creation of the problem-based learning units drew on the strengths of both the Carlos and the Center for Science Education, Stein said.

"While we provided the setting here at the museum and the topics, the hands-on activities and all the supplies for that, it was Jordan Rose of the CSE who taught the teachers how to write PBLs," she said.

Rose, associate director of the CSE, said the rewarding partnership "featured the very interesting science behind conservation practices at the museum with laboratory activities for high school science classrooms based on common conservation techniques at play in the Carlos."

In July 2013, the CSE hosted a week-long teacher workshop at the museum, in which Stein and Etre introduced the 21 participating Atlanta-area teachers to conservation and the museum collections.  The workshop participants tried each of the lab activities, providing feedback on the procedures. Smith and Rose taught the teachers how to write PBLs and the participants created the learning units that are now featured on the mini-site. 

Then in March 2014, in conjunction with the Atlanta Science Festival, over 50 teachers from the metro area came to the Carlos for the premiere of the mini-site. The lab activities described on the site were set up in the museum galleries similar to a science fair.  The teachers who wrote the related PBLs staffed each station and described how they had used these activities in their own classrooms. 

"Now the mini-site is 'live' and we hope to gain widespread use and to solicit additional contributions to the learning units," Stein said.

One of the most exciting aspects for the Carlos team is the outgrowth of the program beyond what they designed. "It spun out from high school and middle school into a curriculum for gifted education that has now been disseminated in Cobb County for public schools to utilize on the 3rd grade level," Stein noted.

Etre said elementary teachers have adapted the PBLs for their students and have also incorporated hands-on art activities, like making paper and decorating pottery.

"We thought it was very important to focus it on our collection. ...hopefully it will encourage them to come visit," Etre said.

For now, the goal is that the mini-site and its contents will be used and that teachers will submit new learning units for consideration to be added.

"Through the web-based module, we have a much wider audience, many far beyond the Atlanta area.  Our goal was to provide an intriguing context for teaching sciences — one that would engage teachers and students with the field of art conservation, the issues of cultural preservation, and the Carlos Museum collections," Stein said.