My teaching at SAIC is focused on students developing a core fluency in biological concepts together with an informed and critical perspective on science as a social practice. The work of artists and designers is increasingly central to how we engage with the contemporary issues of science, technology, and society. Given this, the study of biological processes within their broader historical & philosophical contexts is foundational in any education. The role of popular media plays in the public understanding of science, the modes of visual representation in scientific research & theory, and the art-science interface are all a part of this exploration.
Likewise and simply, the idea is to encourage what is intuitive: wonder and enthusiasm for creatures in all their various manifestations and the fascinating manner in which Life makes a living.
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Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and their meaning in communication. While human culture is semiotically rich, we are just one of a myriad of creatures that employ visual, acoustic, and other forms of signals to communicate information and make sense of an ecologically complex world. This course provides a biological overview of the means by which organisms navigate, mimic, sexually display, and socially coordinate using sensory signals including songs, patterns, scents, and symbols.
Making Natural History in Public
Zoos and natural history museums are public institutions that fundamentally shape our perception of life on earth and our relationship to it. The Lincoln Park Zoo and Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago are remarkable examples of both. Through their exhibitions we will learn core concepts in ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. At the same time we will also explore the history of science and closely and critically examine the nature of these exhibitions - aesthetically, historically, and in terms of their goals to educate. You will design an original media supplement to the exhibitions within the zoo (one half of the course) as well as the Field Museum (the other half) as part of this investigation and as a means to directly engage the practice of natural history today. This course is reading and participation intensive and will involve regular trips to both the zoo and Field Museum through the semester.
The Insect World
This course explores the biology of the most numerous form of life known on the planet: insects. We study insect form and function in relation to ecology in a hands-on manner, learning basic collection and identification techniques that enable the creation of individual insect collections by the end of the course. Biological topics include reproduction, evolution, development, communication, as well as a variety of social behaviors. Course resource page | Insect collections & field trip photos | Insect World Course blog
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Visual & Critical Studies Tutorial
Students explore a range of approaches to visual and critical studies through a series of readings, research exercises, discussions, and critiques. The course functions as a workshop where regular presentations of work in progress and peer feedback provide a framework for developing their intellectual interests in greater depth while also honing core analytic and synthesizing skills. Student focus on an independent project of their choice in the second half of the course that includes a substantial written and research component, with open possibilities to integrating with other media or studio practices. For VCS students, the course provides a link between Issues in Visual and Critical Studies, required of all first-year B.A. students, and the Thesis Seminar required in their final year. For Liberal Arts students it provides an excellent opportunity to gain a better understanding of visual and critical studies approaches in advance of taking later Thesis courses in Liberal Arts.
We explore the great variety in the structure and function of organisms and the processes by which such biological forms come to be. From dinosaurs to DNA, the chance opportunities of mutation to the fundamental constraints of physics, our study will cover a diversity of creatures, topics, and concepts as a means to develop a deeper scientific understanding as well as appreciation for the multitude of ways that organisms make a living. Substantial reading, writing, and discussion on the philosophy, history, and logic of science will be an integral part of our examination throughout the course and complement in-class exercises. Concurrent themes will also include biological systems as models for human design, the notion of creationist “Intelligent Design,” and the controversial implication of our genetic modification of the living world.
Chimeric Practices - Art/Science and Hybrid Ways of Understanding
Many forms of contemporary art and design blur the disciplinary boundaries between the "two cultures" of Art and Science, bringing about innovative & hybrid forms of creative practice. We will critically examine various models for such practices within "bio-art," emergence, and other mutable - often controversial - approaches to speculative research. Discussions with a wide range of hybrid practitioners working at these intersections of art/science/technology throughout the semester will provide the theoretical foundation for students to propose their own hybrid approaches to a creative work based on a scientific topic.
The Ecology of Food
The adage 'you are what you eat' presents us with both a fundamental biological fact as well as a statement of social and economic identity. As consumers in the most literal sense, our understanding of nutrition, global agriculture, food safety, and desires to embrace 'fast' or 'slow' food all demand a working literacy in the biology of the organisms that make up our food ecology. This introduction adopts an integrative approach to this ecology by examining the basic biochemical and evolutionary history of food, along with the genetic modifications and unprecedented global agriculture system that characterizes our food-lives today. Ecology of Food Course blog & resources
Daily there is the discovery of a new 'gene for' something, such as obesity, cancer, or intelligence. But without a clear understanding of what genes are, it is hard to make sense of these claims. This course is 'critical' in aiming to provide a working knowledge of important genetic concepts, and also critical in our examination of the ethical and social implications of genetic discoveries and technologies, including the representation of the science in the media. Through various readings and lab demonstrations we explore the relationship between organisms' DNA and the characteristic traits they exhibit to better understand exactly what kind of roles genes play as a biological cause. Course resource page | Genetics Course blog
Visualizing Biological Phenomena
The explanation of complex biological concepts, testing of predictions, and the presentation data all often rely on visual representations of phenomena. In this course students examine how scientists use graphs, models, and imaging technologies to both assist scientific research as well as communicate their ideas clearly as part of 'scientific method.' Students enter the process by picking a biological concept or question, analyzing its methods and representation, and developing their own independent project. Course resource page | Bioviz Course blog
Eco & Biosystems
- Exploring the Nature of Biological Interactions
The living world is defined by systems of interaction on multiple scales. From the division of cells up through global ecological processes, all biological systems function by mechanisms that support both equilibrium as well as transformation over time. How do fundamental processes of feedback, homeostasis, natural selection, and energetics connect across various levels of biological organization? Drawing on topics in ecology, evolution, epidemiology, and agriculture we will explore the processes and the dynamics that characterize organisms in their environments. Course resource page
Animals in the Urban Jungle
As of 2008, half of the world's population lives in urban areas-a milestone in the history of a human culture primarily found in rural and agricultural contexts. As cities continue to grow and the human experience of nature becomes increasingly dominated by the urban experience, what is the place of animals? How does the built environment that human beings have crafted affect the lives and ecology of animals in urban ecosystems and the ways in which we interact with them? This class explores these issues from the approach of ecological and natural history, coupling basic biological theory with individual semester-long research projects into specific animals-from coyotes, to pigeons, to pet dogs-in the urban ecosystem of Chicago. Urban Animals Course blog
Biomimicry and Design
Biomimicry and Design explores how biological systems can inform the creation of better design possibilities. Students will examine how organisms structurally adapt themselves and their environments, and how these biological systems can be applied as models for design and architecture. The history of biomimicry in design, beginning with early aerodynamic experiments to today's innovations, will inform students on how new design strategies are created by using examples from nature. This dual examination of biology and the history of biomimicry will aid students in developing their own conceptual designs. Students will learn to work in teams on a final project that demonstrates both innovative design and biological principles through research, writing, and oral presentation.
Evolution & Biodiversity
It is estimated that more kinds of creatures are alive right now than at any other time in the earth's 4.5 billion-year history. What accounts for the remarkable array of forms and habits we see in organisms, and how did it come about? This is an introduction to how mutation, environmental variation, natural selection, and extinction work to generate incredible bio-diversity (e.g. tulips, kangaroos, bacteria, blue whales) in the context of life's shared evolutionary history. The role of various cooperative and competitive interactions in evolution is a key theme, as is the ongoing debate over 'Intelligent Design.' Course resource page
Contexts in Contrast: Japan Study Trip [with Stanley Murashige, S07] and [with Christa Donner, S09]
for some photos, click HERE
Contemporary urban Japan is a place marked by converging histories and identities of many kinds. This is evident in the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that act as standard-bearers of Japanese traditional cultural identity among the dense and ever-growing urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto. The traditional self-identification of Japanese culture as strongly tied to nature and the environment contrasts sharply with the modern industrial and technological society it is now. This identity is made further complex by the fact that while technological advancement propelled Japanese military aspirations in World War II, such new technologies like the atomic bomb also terribly and irrevocably altered national identity as well as Japanese conceptions of science, humanity, and the relation to the natural environment.
This trip examines these cultural and historical intersections. It involves study of major Buddhist and Shinto sites, an art historical perspective that is contrasted and integrated with visits to the Hiroshima Peace memorial and museum, as well as a visit the nationalistic and controversial Yasukuni Shrine and its associated war technology museum. The trip also includes visits to a number of sites the trace Japan's historical development, including the The Tokyo War Damage Archive and the Tokyo-Edo Museum, which provide a general context for understanding perspectives on science & technology in Japanese culture. Visits and and one-day seminars with the faculty and students at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts (Geidai) and the Tokyo University's 'Gakkan' Information Studies program (Todai) were part of this trip. Course blog
** Syllabi available upon request
To learn more about the range of course-related and collaborative projects in biodiversity education and engagement I coordinate please visit The Biological Office.