Extreme Art!
Robbie Lipe standing with an 'Entering Montana' sign

Art teacher Robbie Lipe participated in the NASA Explorer Schools Winter's Story workshop held annually in snowy Yellowstone National Park. Image Credit: Vance Elementary School

After a week in frigid Yellowstone National Park, teacher Robbie Lipe couldn't wait to get back into the classroom and work with students on extremophiles, states of matter, and discoveries NASA is making on other planets.

Lipe, however, is not a science teacher or a geology teacher. Lipe is Vance Elementary School's art teacher.

Her approach at the Asheville, N.C., elementary school is unique, Lipe said, in that she works with other teachers in planning lessons each quarter. Approximately 75 percent of lessons in art class are collaborative, she said, and connect art with core content areas.

In January 2010, Lipe attended NASA's Winter's Story workshop at which educators examined the relationships between organisms, climate and ecosystems as a way to learn about extreme conditions and the bacteria, known as extremophiles, that live there. Lipe brought the lessons she learned about extremophiles to her fifth-grade art class. Students made textural painted representations of the hot springs where extremophiles live.

Robbie Lipe lying in the snow

Robbie Lipe participates in an activity studying snow layers during the NASA Explorer Schools Winter's Story workshop. Image Credit: Vance Elementary School

Lipe discussed with students the similarities between Yellowstone National Park, where the workshop was held, and the environments on other planets. Like Yellowstone, some planets have hot springs, acid springs, and extreme heat and cold. For their art project, students created relief paintings of hot springs and painted the reliefs according to the colors of actual hot springs.

Students used tiny objects such as rocks, pasta and beads to create a textured surface structure like the area around the hot springs. The objects were covered in gesso, a white paint used to prime canvases for painting. Priming the rocks and pasta with gesso made the objects paintable.

The young scientists and artists painted the objects in their art to represent the different life forms and land features found at hot springs. Red and orange features were iron oxides. Bright green areas represented algae. Sulfur was represented by yellow. Areas of geyserite deposits were painted gray and white.

"Since this is a collaborative lesson I don't want them just to make an image. I want them to have some science in their image," Lipe said. "We were not trying to replicate any of the actual springs. They were doing an artist's interpretation ... We're using information about Yellowstone (National Park) to inform the color scheme and the extremophiles to make an abstract piece of art."

A student painting of a hot spring

Students created relief paintings of hot springs. Students were inspired by the colors of actual hot springs. Image Credit: Vance Elementary School

Students' art also incorporated representations of microscopic bacteria living in the water at hot springs. To represent bacteria in the water, students texturized their art with chow mein noodles, candy pieces, stringy fibers and angel hair pasta.

"My intent was to have them understand the science behind their painting, and make the science valid so that they are not just talking about color schemes in paint terms, but talking about relationships," Lipe said. "I really wanted them to be able to talk about their art in terms of both science and art."

Blending science with an art project can help students learn and retain abstract science concepts, Lipe said. "They loved it. ... There was not a single child who was not engaged. Even in the discussions when I would quiz them about the colors in relation to minerals present in the springs, they were all excited to show off their knowledge."

Lipe also did an activity with students on the states of matter, specifically exploring the different states of oobleck (a fluid made of cornstarch and water that thickens when pressure is applied). Students tested what would happen to the gooey substance if they boiled it, froze it, put it under pressure or used it as a lubricant on gears.

Two students looking at oobleck boiling in a bowl

Students observe how oobleck reacts to being boiled. Image Credit: Vance Elementary School

While at the workshop in Yellowstone, Lipe maintained a blog where she wrote to students about what she was experiencing and asked students questions relevant to the weather and winter and NASA. Lipe said her focus at the workshop was to learn how she could use art to reinforce the concepts students are learning in science class.

"This integration of arts, science and technology is a cutting-edge example of the educational experiences we can expect to see in 21st-century learning," Lipe said. She is excited about all the possibilities that art holds for students to make connections and better understand the world around them.

Originally, the NASA Explorer Schools project partnered with specific school teams selected to participate in the project. In 2010, the project was revamped to broaden the scope of schools that could participate, making NES resources available to any school that wants to use them. Today, the NASA Explorer Schools project is NASA's classroom-based gateway for middle and high school students. The project provides authentic learning experiences designed around NASA's unique missions while promoting student engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. NES allows students to participate in NASA's mission of research and discovery through inquiry-based experiences designed around the work of NASA scientists and engineers.

Related Resources:
> NASA Explorer Schools
> The Story of Winter
> Telling Winter's Story
> 2007 Winter's Story Slideshow
> Alien Safari (Extremophiles on Earth)   →
> Looking for Life in All the Right Places   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services