This year’s new tenth-grade biology project—“Deep Dive”—is certainly one for the history books, with students creating projects ranging from desserts filled with clouds of chocolate mousse and oozing raspberry coulis to Zoom-made music videos. For this month-long project, students were tasked with writing about a curriculum-inspired topic that personally interested them, and then—in a unique twist—displaying their knowledge as an art piece.
“We wanted to give students more freedom in their learning,” said biology teacher Michaela Danek. “We built up students' understanding of biology, and at the end of the semester we wanted to open it up and allow students to dive in different directions.”
When remote class began March 16, the biology curriculum took a major pivot, threading topics including zoonosis, the coronavirus, and immunology into the tapestry of tenth-grade learning. Instead of solidifying content through more traditional labs or tests, biology teachers Michaela, Samantha Huff, Paul Hauser, Jehnna Ronan, and Trip Sweeney designed an original and creative project that enabled students to mesh different disciplines. All students completed their “Deep Dive,” and some have even completed two, as it was an option for their final project.
“Thinking about biology creatively is way more interesting, surprising, and memorable than just the content itself,” Trip said about the reasoning behind incorporating an art piece. “Being able to artistically and creatively express yourself is paramount in high school, so having biology funnel into that greater goal is important.”
Even before the pandemic, the biology teachers planned a spring study that would give students more freedom in their learning. However, after shelter-in-place began, they decided the curriculum should be both topical and have an added creative flair to leave students with a memorable experience. Additionally, the biology teachers hoped that they could take students away from their devices and keep full engagement.
“It's harder to keep students’ attention in remote learning—people are legitimately distracted by all sorts of things,” Michaela said. “That's where the deep dives came in; teaching students something but also giving them some freedom to pursue what's most interesting for them and most motivating to engage with.”
Students certainly took advantage of the various pathways the project enabled them to explore. Some utilized information technology to create three-dimensional models, animations, digital drawings, or music, while others explored painting, cooking, poetry, drawing, and weaving.
Sophomore Maya C. created a series of desserts, cleverly entitled “Reverse Transcrip-taste.”
“My art component was a metaphor for the activity of reverse transcriptase,” she said. “It was very enjoyable to make, since I don't consider myself to be very good at art, so I got to make something a little more interpretive.”
Reverse transcriptase is a process by which an enzyme can turn RNA into DNA—a process that allows retroviruses (such as HIV) to integrate their viral genome into the host cell genome. In Maya’s art, the enzyme is represented with the three raspberries clustered in the corner, and the progression of chocolate shells, mousse, and the slight hint of raspberry depict the steps of reverse transcription.
“I enjoyed the deep dive because it gave me a chance to further research a topic I was very interested in,” Maya said. “The creative deliverable is definitely an engaging and creative way for me—and hopefully others—to further our research, and, depending on what you do, get off a screen.”
While cooking her series of desserts was the hardest part of the project, Maya said that crafting the original idea and bridging the gap between her research and the creative model was also challenging.
“I learned that my art piece wasn't going to parallel my research completely, but in some cases it would help as an imperfect analogy,” she said.
Sophomore Rebecca T. also presented her knowledge in the form of visual art.
Rebecca explored the public health issue regarding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These farms use methods—such as overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, mistreatment of waste, and pollution—that have many consequences, including antibiotic resistance and bacteria.
“I thought about how disconnected most grocery shoppers are from the origins of their meat—they don't really see the living conditions, life cycle, and effects on humans and the environment, and common depictions of farm animals (especially from childhood) are so unlike real life,” Rebecca said. “This inspired me to draw a grocery store refrigerator filled with pre-packaged meat, all very neat and geometrical, but with small hints of something shady lurking inside.”
For Rebecca, the deep dive was not only insightful because she learned about a topic that interests her, but also because she grew as an artist. Her piece was created in Photoshop—which she had never used before to paint digitally—and wows viewers with its meticulous detail, something that, she says, was “tedious but pretty rewarding.”
She also enjoyed connecting her passion for art to science.
“I haven't had much chance to explore the connections between art and science before, so this project was super refreshing and exciting to me, especially as someone who prefers the arts over math and science,” she said. “Other than getting to do art in general, I liked how we were given the freedom to choose our topics as long as they related to the current area of study in class.”
Other students strayed beyond visual arts, such as Brandon C., who explored a completely different facet of art—music. He wrote a piano piece influenced by the entrance of COVID-19.
“I actually enjoyed the deep dive project a lot more than I thought I would—I typically don't do that much art, so I was nervous when I started actually working on the art side of my project,” Brandon said. “The part I enjoyed the most was being able to incorporate the research I did on COVID-19 entry mechanisms into musical motifs and the structure of my piece—I could express myself while maintaining some connection to the science behind the project.”
Brandon knew he wanted to have a music-related art piece from the beginning of the project, and spent most of his time researching the entry mechanisms of COVID-19 and the relevant proteins. He began his art process by developing a melody that encompassed his conception of the interior of the nucleus, and he later rearranged and re-edited his piece.
“I learned that music can be a powerful tool to express complex concepts, even if it abstracts away many of the details,” Brandon said. “Although biology can be expressed through complex writing and detailed graphs, art is the medium by which biology can be made accessible to a wider audience.”
Students Mira D. and Avery C. chose to blend different artistic disciplines by combining visual art and music to form a Zoom-made music video.
Based on the song “The Only Exception” by Paramore, Mira and Avery rewrote most of the lyrics to describe different types of viruses that do not follow the regular viral life cycle, such as poxviruses, retroviruses, and orthomyxoviruses.
“I learned a lot, because while I’m usually not super interested in art, the art helped me symbolize the main ideas and allowed me to become more observant and understand the topic more,” Mira said.
Mira and Avery gravitated toward this project because of shared interest, and because creating a music video enabled them easily to collaborate in a remote space. Originally, they planned to only make a parody, but later decided to add the music video component to help the viewer visually understand the concepts and to facilitate a balance between conveying information and listening to music.
“The connection between art and science from the project is really interesting—science and art are both very interrelated and help describe the world around us,” Mira said. “The audiences they are intended for are different, but they work hand-in-hand together to help people understand concepts.”
Sophomore Maya B. chose creative writing as her artform and wrote a poem about HIV.
Flowers bloom inside us every moment, there’s
Daffodils, daisies, dahlias, daphnes, delphiniums, our bodies
Growing, healing, living, but some of the
Flowers are dark.
No one lives through the beginning, consciously
They learn of that dreadful inception posthumously, think back
To when this thing would’ve taken root, inside
Of their precious bodies.
Asymptomatic, invisible, at the
Beginning of this dreadful story, which
No one was ever meant to live, except
You are living it, and life goes on—
Until it doesn’t, the dark flowers
Spreading their petals, at first
Into the deepest crevasses of your being.
You are the flowers, and the flowers are you. That’s how it gets you.
Maya drew her inspiration from pop culture and the societal ideas of fatality and inevitability blanketing chronic diseases—particularly HIV. Her piece additionally encapsulates her own feelings as well as some of the sentiments reflected in the media.
“The hardest part was finding the balance between metaphor or artistic abstraction and cold science,” Maya said. “If you want something to be more visually appealing, you can’t just be reciting a scientific textbook, but at the same time, you are trying to communicate something about some scientific thing.”
The variety of projects students completed is impressive and, as biology teacher Jehnna Ronan notes, the project will hopefully be an experience that stands out from the blur of quarantine.
“Doing a mechanistic write-up is helpful for your learning, but having created some sort of artistic piece really cements the content for you—it gives you an emotional resonance with the project,” Jehnna said. “It’s not just about students communicating to other people, but also them thinking about science from a different angle and seeing how it connects to another mode of expression.”
Future biology classes may see an increase in interdisciplinary projects—especially relating to art and creativity.
“I would love to keep developing the artistic component of biology,” Michaela said, “because it’s in the places where biology interfaces with other disciplines that I think students really can find themselves.”
Anouschka B. '22 is a staff writer for the student newspaper, The Nueva Current.