In Stephanie Sherlock’s classroom at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Elementary School on a Friday morning last month, Honolulu Museum of Art’s outreach program manager Justin Davies and artist-instructor Quala-Lynn Young were going over the upcoming lesson. They were starting a three-week art-and-science project with the class. Students paired up and each group received a plastic wrap-sealed test tube holding squirming mosquito larvae. The goal is to have the first-graders create a science journal in which they draw and record their observations.
It’s part of the Honolulu Museum of Art School’s ongoing outreach education program with the nearby public school.
Soon the first graders come tumbling into the classroom and Miss Sherlock instructs them to sit in orderly rows on the floor in front of the chalkboard.
“Today you’re going to be an artist and a scientist,” Davies tells the little heads looking up at him. He lets them know that they should “look carefully at the thing you’re drawing and really study it and draw what you see, not what you think it looks like.”
As an example, Justin draws a stylized bird that doesn’t have a lot of connection to what we see puttering around on sidewalks, then make a quick sketch that looks like he was actually observing a dove.
Then Young demonstrates how to fold a rectangular piece of paper into a four-page journal. Like Mr. Rogers, Young and Davies have a calm energy about them, and when they ask questions, little hands shoot into the air.
Young draws on the chalkboard in big letters, “My Science Journal,” and Davies does the big reveal and shows them a test tube. “I can see something moving in there,” he says. “Is it a tadpole?” Then he holds up a magnifying glass.
On her own science journal, Young shows the students how they can record what they see—by drawing what’s in the tube, marking the water line, and recording “dark stuff,” they have a baseline to make a comparison the next day. What do they think will happen?
“The water might be gone,” says one child. “The water might get dirty.” Each comment makes the gears turn in the heads of their classmates. “I think that it’s big, they look like tadpoles, so I predict that when we come back, it’s gonna look like a frog with a tail,” says another.
Young instructs the class to do two drawings—one of the whole test tube, and one that shows a section of it up close.
Test tubes are doled out to each pair—after careful instruction on keeping it upright so water doesn’t spill out—which then adjourns to their desks to get a good look at their UWO (Unidentified Wiggling Object).
Holding the test tube aloft, Miketa Sonish peers at it, sees two pulsing black lines and says, “That’s the mommy.” His partner (his parents have asked that his name not be used) exclaims, “It’s a worm!” and writes “WORM?” as his first scientific observation.
Young hands out magnifying glasses and the students excitedly press them right up against their eyes. The instructors gently help them adjust the distance between their faces and the tube so they can actually see the tiny wrigglers. When asked, “Do you feel like a scientist?” a boy shyly nods, “yes.”
Over the next three weeks, Miss Sherlock continued helping students with their daily observations. As mosquitoes began to appear, the children theorized about this unexpected appearance. One youngster thought maybe a mosquito opened the plastic wrap and snuck inside. They diligently recorded what they saw, and their science journals are now on display on the classroom walls, along with their drawings of butterflies that helped them understand the concept of symmetry, as well as insect anatomy.
“It’s a big cognitive leap for students to understand a swimming thing they’ve been calling ‘Wiggly’ has changed to this thing they usually smack when they see it. But when you get enough of the mosquitos showing up, they start to agree on the origins of the mosquito,” says Davies, who bred the larvae himself in buckets in his backyard. “It’s a discovery approach to learn about insect life cycles and observational drawing. The art plays in important role in the sense you have to observe carefully to make a drawing, you start to notice certain features, and can start to have some structure and function conversations with students—‘What do you think that’s for?’ ‘How could that help it survive?’—which is good science.”