The moment Honolulu Museum of Art School teaching artist Jordan Koffman wheels her art supply cart onto Queen Ka‘ahumanu Elementary School’s campus, students start waving and calling out, “Hi, Miss Jordan!” It’s a Friday, and with morning recess ending, they know it’s time for one of Koffman’s lessons on artful approaches to science, part of the Art School’s ongoing residency at QKE. The program consists of 16 sessions for all five of QKE’s first grade classes, and is made possible by the Stupski Family Fund of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation.
Koffman is joined by Art School outreach coordinator Emma Hussey for her first session with Bernadette Thul’s class of 15 first-graders. Koffman wastes no time cutting through their post-recess energy.
“Can anybody tell me what the scientific method is?” she asks. The class goes bashfully quiet. “Nobody? Well, the word ‘method’ is just another way of saying a special way of doing something, and it has steps. The first step in the scientific method is to observe, to look very closely at something to see all the details you can find.”
Sensing an en-masse squirm coming on, she pulls up an item for observation—a plastic bag filled with mysterious green objects. Is it fruit? Or lettuce? Maybe broccoli? The students lob guesses at Koffman until she reveals that they are in fact Apples of Sodom, the obscure fruit from a milkweed plant related to the common crown flower. Art School director Vince Hazen harvested them from Āina Haina Elementary School, which his children attend.
Koffman puts on gloves, to protect herself from toxic sap, and peels open the soft fruit, revealing a milky-colored fibrous interior—and the kids all say “Eww!”
They act grossed out, but gleefully scurry back to their desks when told that they’ll get their own fruit, gloves, pencils, and sketchpads to make their own observations. As they start out, Hussey gives them tips on drawing techniques—loosen up your elbow to make flowing strokes with the pencil, start with light lines and gradually darken them, and look back and forth often from your fruit to your paper.
“I started off with the stem on mine,” says student Noelle Mayo. “I started with a line. Then I drew the flower. The way you make it lighter is by coloring it lightly.”
By the end of the session, the students have what could be the start of a scientific record, or a still life sketch. That overlap is part of the program’s push for “creative synthesis,” as Hussey puts it, which “helps to build scientific inquiry and genuine interest in what they are going to learn about.”
To sustain that interest beyond the semester-long residency, Hussey and Koffman work closely with teachers like Thul, whose classes have been forced to cut down on in-house arts education in recent years. By demonstrating to teachers how art can be worked into other subjects, like science and math, the museum’s outreach program team gives art a chance to make a comeback. To that end, the sketchpads, which Koffman made by hand for each student, will stay with the classes as a resource; after she helps the students fill a few more pages.
A week later, Koffman returns to the class to demonstrate the second step in the scientific method: the hypothesis. At the font of the class, Koffman crosshatches red and blue lines with a color pencil and presents the drawing to the students. As she gradually steps away from them, while still holding up the field of red and blue lines, she asks them what color they think will emerge. Maroon? Brown?
“Go back!” says student Brayden Orias. “Go further away, even further away. Oh, it’s purple!”
This optical trick (and lesson) enables the students to draw a more complex picture of the more complex organism Koffman brought with her this week—the tiny caterpillars that feed on milkweed plants.
Armed with their sketchbooks and color pencils, the kids lean over their caterpillar jars to take stock of the insects’ eating habits and black-and-yellow patterns. In just two weeks, thanks to engaging subjects and instruction, data collection and artistic research are becoming reflexive for these young learners—tomorrow’s scientists, policy makers, and artists.