How to put the 'A' in STEAM: Teaching science through illustration in schools

Our Head of Education on delivering an INSET with a special science focus...

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  • Emily Jost
  • Education

"This INSET has supported our aim to ensure that art at Ashmount is embedded throughout the curriculum and that art activities are purposeful and robust learning opportunities. It is also supporting the improvement of well-being among our more vulnerable pupils." — Art Co-ordinator, Rebecca Hodgson

We have worked with Ashmount Primary School in Haringey in several different ways over the past few years: we delivered an outreach project there before House of Illustration opened; the school has brought several classes to us for illustrator-led workshops and the Art Co-ordinator Rebecca Hodgson has attended one of our one-day CPD courses for primary teachers.  When she contacted me to book in a whole-school INSET, I was delighted. 

We usually deliver illustration INSETS which develop teachers’ art and illustration skills, ideas and techniques to use across the curriculum, from English to geography to PSHE – and we almost always include some science.  Ashmount specifically requested a science focus, however, so illustrator Merlin Strangeway and I decided to plan a whole series of science-related activities – allowing time to discuss ways to put them all into action with different year groups and for different topics.

We started with a slideshow featuring as many examples of our previous science-related illustration workshops as possible.  Putting this together, I was pleased to be reminded of the innovative ways we have tackled science through illustration with many, many pupils over the years.

Then to warm up, we gave each table of teachers a series of cut-outs or ink pads and stamps, setting them the challenge of turning these into new scientific discoveries or inventions.  A fun way to start, we deliver this kind of activity in all our work with teachers as it helps them overcome common fears of the blank page.  We also recommend they do something similar as a starter with their classes, as children are all too often daunted by mark-making.

Next we reconfigured another favourite: turning black and white Victorian engravings into outlandish collages – teachers ran riot, creating and labelling new steampunk-esque hybrid creatures, cyborgs and robots.

This was followed by a more strictly scientific activity where we "anatomised" famous women scientists from history (subtly weaving in equality and role models). Teachers were given anatomical diagrams and chose which area(s) to cut open and show the insides of.  We loved some of the ideas that came out of this: in addition to learning about organs, bones and circulation, teachers thought this could be used to learn about healthy eating, or even as a way to depict feelings.  By starting with an existing photograph, the task is so much more manageable than creating a whole anatomical study, while allowing pupils time to really focus on learning about the biology.

Lastly, teachers worked in phase teams to create step-by-step instructions illustrating a scientific process or experiment relevant to their phase.  We had a really useful discussion about how this process could work well for pupils who have barriers to writing, and how it can even be used for assessment – you can’t explain something in pictures unless you fully understand it!

The school has used several of the ideas and techniques already, including using comic strips to demonstrate Science Week experiments.

Merlin and I really enjoyed rising to the challenge of a wholly-science related INSET and loved our afternoon at the school, working with the teachers and support staff. We learn something new every time we do this and hope to build on the successes of this day with other schools seeking to put the 'A' into STEAM.

All the teachers and learning support staff said they would recommend this session to colleagues.  They valued the practical skills and ideas and enjoyed how the "activities started as playful and built up to incorporate science and tech". Many commented on the benefits of learning "ways to use illustration without necessarily having to draw."

 "As Art Coordinator I wanted to ensure that art was not being taught on an 'ad-hoc' basis and that it was consistent across the curriculum and year groups. This INSET enabled teachers to see that art could be taught alongside Science in a creative curriculum and also see that art can be a vehicle for several subjects." – Rebecca Hodgson

"As a practicing medical artist, I am passionate about exploring how illustration can work hard for us — from explaining complex scientific principles to offering creative solutions to the world's most exciting issues. Running INSET sessions is a great way to share with teachers my passion for fusing arts and sciences. Such subjects are too important to be isolated from one another - it makes far more sense for them to work in partnership."  — Merlin Strangeway.