The art of science: integrating creativity and scientific thought

Professors, students and alumni discuss Queen’s lack of cross-disciplinary requirements

Nursing students are often sent to the Agnes to gain a new perspective.
Image by: Anna Maria Li
Nursing students are often sent to the Agnes to gain a new perspective.

The world of art instills creativity. The world of science — methods. Combining the two provides an opportunity for ingenuity. However, at Queen’s, the combination is rare. 

Queen’s is among only a handful of Ontario universities that don’t require undergraduate students to take a mandatory cross-disciplinary credit. The absence of a required course persists, despite a recommendation made in favour of such a requirement nearly 16 years ago. 

However, while taking a course outside of a student’s primary discipline remains a choice, both students and professors have built interdisciplinary options into their university experience. 

Why doesn’t Queen’s have a mandatory breadth credit?

“We are one of very few universities that maintain this stance,” Assistant Dean (Studies) for Arts and Science Sue Blake told The Journal in an email. 

According to Queen’s administration, the institution’s position against a mandatory “breadth requirement” gives students more leniency and choice in their course selection.

In 2000, the Faculty of Arts and Science conducted a curriculum review and made a series of recommendations to benefit the academics of Queen’s students. 

One of these recommendations proposed a mandatory distributional credit system, where all courses would be categorized as either humanities, social sciences or natural/physical sciences. The recommendation would require that students take one or more courses from each of the disciplines before graduating.

“In looking at the recommendation, the Faculty reviewed thousands of student transcripts,” Blake wrote. The review found that most Arts and Science students were already taking courses outside of their primary discipline, without being mandated to do so. 

She added that the Faculty had many interdisciplinary courses that would be difficult to categorize and which already “meet the spirit of the recommendation.” 

Based on the data they acquired, the Faculty encouraged students to use the flexibility of course selection, starting with the university’s major/minor system. This system allows students to mix their studies in the arts and the sciences without restrictive bureaucratic hurdles, according to Blake. 

Despite the benefits of fewer requirements, some professors believe students are choosing to stay within limiting faculty boundaries during their studies — and it’s damaging to their academic growth.

Combining arts and sciences breeds invention 

The goal of post-secondary education shouldn’t be memorization of the past, but rather an original creation — or so says Dr. Roel Vertegaal, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and the Director of the Human Media Lab (HML) at Queen’s.

Vertegaal says such a pursuit is impossible without combining art and science, and his work reflects that. Along with his work in the HML, Vertegaal teaches the Computing and the Creative Arts (COCA) program, which integrates computer science with elements of drama, music, multimedia and visual art. 

Arts and science are critical influences upon each other, but the system in place at Queen’s allows students to avoid uncomfortable or unfamiliar material, he said. In doing so, he said the university is creating what he calls a dangerous “handholding” atmosphere, where students are kept safe within isolated disciplines. 

 “I find that appalling, damning, and infantilizing,” he said. “If we keep them in their little bubble or cocoon, I think that’s detrimental.” 

For Vertegaal, the combination of artistic and scientific mindsets “is what invention is all about”.

“[Leonardo] da Vinci realized that if he wanted to draw an arm correctly, he needed to study anatomy, so he needed to do cadavers. Really, what he was doing was 3D graphics, 3D projections, trying to make it as realistic as possible.” 

He added that a lack of cross-disciplinary education often presents hurdles for COCA students, who often enter courses with an understanding of only a single approach.  

“In terms of the arts students, they often have more radical ideas about what they want to do,” he said. However, he said he’s seen students become frustrated when they’re unsure how to technically implement their idea. 

Conversely, he said, science-based students were too accustomed to prescriptive formulas and memorization and appeared to lack practice in outside-the-box thinking and conceptual invention. 

“Engineers, if you give them a nail, they’re always going to hammer it in, because that’s what they’re trained to do. This is the whole cookie cutter teaching mentality,” he said.

“If you don’t want a bridge to collapse, fine. But if you want something completely different, you need some open-mindedness.” 

An alumnus’ cross-disciplinary decisions

Zachery Wells, ArtSci ’14, is among the students who adopted Vertegaal’s mentality, but he’s still wary of mandatory requirements. 

“I have never been an advocate for mandatory cross-disciplinary course requirements,” alumnus Wells he told The Journal via Facebook Messenger. It’s important that students are given freedom of choice, especially considering the massive expense of a university degree, he said.

He believes that the decision to cross disciplines is an intelligent choice, but shouldn’t be forced upon students by an administration. 

When he attended Queen’s, Wells used the major-minor system to cross between disciplines, completing a major in biology and a minor in gender studies. 

In first year, he was unaware of the myriad of options available, and he may have limited himself without proper exposure to different streams of thought, he said.

“We think we might be interested in global development, or lower intestinal sub-glandular biochemistry, or about learning what exactly a “mol” of something is in chemistry,” he wrote. 

“But, we simply don’t know.” 

He added that individuals will be indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking, no matter what discipline they are enrolled in. Stepping outside your own world gives a necessary twist to your perspective. 

At the very least, he said, it’s important to be able to engage in a variety of conversations.

“You [shouldn’t be] that person whose life revolves [around] polymer extraction, which is a buzz killer at parties,” he said. 

You should also have an opinion of Foucault’s “potentially androcentric views” of feminism, he said — “but again, it’s your money.” 

Human media lab is currently researching Organic User Interfaces. (Supplied by Human Media Lab)

A healthy balance: nursing and the arts at Queen’s

The School of Nursing may project an image of sterile lab coats and medical precision, but at Queen’s nursing students can be found in an unexpected place — the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. 

Both the Director of Nursing, Dr. Jennifer Medves, and Assistant Professor Dr. Rosemary Wilson use the Agnes Etherington Art Centre as a learning tool for their graduate nursing programs. 

Medves says she often sends nursing students with a science heavy background to the art gallery for a simple purpose: to spend time just sitting still and making observations.  

“They’re usually very busy. So, when they’re asking people questions, they’re needing answers. Just even learning to sit and observe is actually quite a different skill that you can learn.” 

The gallery is an excellent training ground for participant observation skills, Medves said.

“They don’t have any context about why the pictures are hanging there, because we sent them as a ‘tabula rasa’ … without any context.” 

Medves says this teaches students to use other senses than critical thinking skills and scientific logic, which they’ve been conditioned to use every day.

She believes nursing is both an art and a science, although the art perspective is often ignored. Nursing is subjective because individuals respond uniquely to their healthcare options, she said.

“You can’t put a science model on everything,” she said, as a patient’s disease or disability can provoke unexpected reactions that cannot be taught in a lab. 

 Dr. Wilson, meanwhile, said it’s particularly difficult for Masters students in nursing programs to break from the scientific mold of learning. 

“We’re asking them to be more abstract, and really reach out to the edges of the human experience, and it’s hard for them sometimes.”

Challenging students with interdisciplinary learning forces them to consider alternate perspectives, and creates a more compassionate and human approach when they interact with patients, she added.

“It gave an idea of the lens: of how you observe something. If you’re looking at it from left or from right, from far away or up close, the context of something changes.”

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