Connecting Art & Science for Kids – Scientific Illustration at Science Olympiad

Is it really July already?! This year has flown by. I was caught up in the usual whirlwind of work, school and family activities since January. However, I did get a chance to work on an art-related project in the form of a table at Science Olympiad this past June.

Science Olympiad, if you are not familiar, was created “in 1983 by Dr. Gerard J. Putz and Jack Cairns to increase interest and as an alternative to traditional science fairs and single-discipline tournaments. After a series of trials, Olympiads were held in the states of Michigan and Delaware. The Science Olympiad began to grow and now the Olympiad has members in all 50 states, totaling  more than 13,500 actively participating K-12 schools.” (from the Washtenaw Elementary Science Olympiad (WESO) site.)

Here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we are very fortunate to have the largest elementary Science Olympiad in the country (history of WESO.) Run entirely by volunteers, participation includes hundreds of students from public and private schools all over Washtenaw County and is held on a Saturday in May. This year, it happened to fall on the first Saturday in June.

So what does this have to do with art? Well, every year, there is a large room for what is called Open Events. These include science demonstrations of all sorts, from zoological specimens to circuit building, chemistry experiments, fossil examinations, owl pellet dissections and more! This is a place where the kids and their families can come learn and participate in fun science activities when they have down time before or after their competitions.

Open Events is one my favorite things each year and my girls love going to each table to see what activity they can do. As we walked around last year, I had an “ah-ha!” moment when I realized that this would be the perfect venue to talk to kids about the connection between art and science. As a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI), I knew I could put something useful, and hopefully engaging, together for the kids.

With the help of our head coach, I was connected with the volunteer coordinator for Open Events, Nirmala Rajaram. We had a great introductory meeting in January of this year, and I began putting my ideas together.

The first thing I did was contact some folks from the GNSI. Gail Guth, former Communications Director and longtime member, was instrumental in helping me not have to reinvent the wheel! She shared a terrific presentation with me that she created explaining scientific illustration, why it is necessary, and some great examples. She also put me in touch with MaryBeth Hinrichs, another GNSI colleague, who shared the efforts of the GNSI Education group about drawing exercises for classes on scientific illustration.

All of this information was crucial in helping me to construct a tri-fold poster board that I displayed at our table during Science Olympiad. I wanted to make it quickly readable since Open Events is a busy area with a lot of folks moving through, but also make sure that the information included was useful.


As you can see in the picture above, I was able to get a selection of informational handouts from GNSI. These included a terrific Careers in Scientific Illustration booklet and GNSI calling cards with information about the organization. I was happy that many folks took those home!

In addition to information, I wanted to have hands-on activities for kids or adults to do when they came to our table. MaryBeth’s information included a great blind-contour exercise, so I printed up some instructions for that. I also had a brief perspective exercise with plexi-glass boards and dry erase markers to try. Fortunately, Science Olympiad had a small budget for supplies, so I was able to request a ream of plain white paper, some colored pencils, a range of graphite pencils (to demonstrate different hardnesses and lines/shading that can be made), technical pens, and some plexi boards and dry erase markers. As for subjects to draw, I brought a number of seashells, pine cones, several flowering plants, and other natural items that the kids could draw. The most popular was my bobcat skull!


As June approached, I began reaching out to some local GNSI members and also some parent volunteers from our school to see if they would be available to help me staff the table throughout the day. Open Events runs from approximately 7:30 a.m. (set-up) until 6:30 p.m., and I also had coaching duties for my 2nd grade team, so I definitely needed some assistance! My husband, Mike, along with two parent volunteers (thanks, Mary Jane and April!) were able to help throughout the morning. GNSI member Patricia Ferrer Beals was also able to drop off some great sketching subjects before she had to tend to her coaching duties. Fortunately, I also had another GNSI member, Kristina Spitzner, who came for a good part of the day. She brought her portfolio and also some sketchbooks and finished pieces that we were able to put on display. I added some of my sketchbooks from the exchanges I have participated in over the last few years, and some of my sketches and studies to show the kids that work does not start out perfect! The finishing touch was a beautiful banner with the GNSI logo that we put on the front of the table. We were armed with lots of good information, art supplies and examples, and ready for kids to come.

And come, they did! We had originally set up three chairs in front of our table for kids to sit down and draw. Often, we had four or five kids at a time! We put them with paper and pencils wherever they would fit. Part of this was due to the fact that events let out at the same time and we would get a rush of kids all at once, but I think that the kids were excited to take a look at our subjects and drawings and participate in the process.

We had a lot of great questions and great art being made by the kids. My idea of drawing exercises quickly went by the wayside as the kids just wanted to dive in with paper and a cool seashell or the bobcat skull and start drawing! That was totally fine, and we encouraged them to try some of the other materials like the technical pens to make different types of marks. One thing I had not anticipated was that many kids immediately began tracing or even doing relief rubbings of the seashells. It was a clever way to get a quick start!

Overall, it was a great success. We had a busy day with lots of interest and lots of drawing! I was nearly out of career booklets and even had some inquiries from adults about teaching classes on scientific illustration to kids. I am hoping that we can continue to participate at Science Olympiad and continue to show the connections between art, science and visual communication present in the minds of these kids.

Have you had an opportunity to bring art and science together for an audience? I would love to hear about it!

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about the GNSI Conference, which was held in Asheville, NC at the end of June. It was my first time attending and it was terrific!




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