High school teachers, Brian C. Dempsey and B.J. Betz, describe how they use drawing as a learning tool in Biological Drawing: A Scientific Tool for Learning. They observed that while a lot of time is spent drawing during a typical biology lab, biology instructors do not take the time to teach students how to draw. In response to this observation, they incorporated structured drawing activities into a biology class and successfully taught students how to observe, describe, and draw.
Dempsey and Betz taught introductory drawing techniques to students in a 9th-grade biology class to enhance their observation skills and to make them better learners. The drawing activities and homework exercises they created were administered over a five-day period. During this time, students participated in exercises addressing observation, drawing from memory, the recording of texture, contour drawing, and the drawing of negative space. Most exercises were completed as homework, while class time was spent conducting directed activities.
Detailed descriptions of each activity and illustrated examples are included in Dempsey & Betz (2001). Here is a quick look at the exercises students completed.
Exercise 1: Observing & Describing
Students were instructed to sit with their backs towards each other. Each student took turns describing an object from nature to their partner, who could not see the object being described. Students were required to incorporate art-related terms into their descriptions (e.g., form, value, and color). Prior to this activity, students received instruction about terms used by artists during the drawing process.
Exercise 2: Drawing from Memory
In this exercise, students studied an object given to them by their teacher. After studying the object for a while, they put the object away and drew it from memory.
Exercise 3: Textures & Surfaces
Students collected as many textured items as they could find in their natural environment. Their recorded observations and texture rubbings were used to create a master list of textures and to launch a discussion about observation skills.
Exercise 4: Contour Drawing
After observing a classroom demonstration, students were instructed to create a contour drawing of an object at home. The construction of a contour drawing required students to observe carefully and to draw slowly while drawing what they observed.
Exercise 5: Negative Space Drawing
Students learned what negative space was and how to observe it. They then practiced their negative drawing skills.
Exercise 6: Color Blending & Shading Techniques
This lesson was taught in the classroom. Students learned different shading techniques and learned how to mix and blend colors. The student handout for this exercise is included in Dempsey & Betz (2001).
To assess if students knew how to use contour drawing, negative space, shading, and color in a biological drawing, Dempsey & Betz created a two-part project requiring students to apply their new skills. The first project was a take-home project requiring students to complete a drawing of a plant growing around their house. Students were graded on their use of contour drawing and negative space, their use of color blending and shading, their attention to detail, and the correct identification of their plant specimen. Dempsey & Betz established grading criteria by which student drawings were assessed. Their rubric and a copy of the handout students received are included in their article.
The second part of the assessment project was conducted in the laboratory and required students to apply their drawing skills while observing and comparing insect-pollinated flowers to wind-pollinated flowers during two 50-minute class periods. A detailed description of this activity is included in Dempsy & Betz (2001).
Since this initial program was conducted, Dempsy & Betz have revised their technique as necessary. They have also incorporated drawing lessons into a unit about human anatomy. In this unit, students apply their drawing skills while learning about bones and the origin and insertion of muscles.
Dempsey & Betz (2001) recommend teachers read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, take introductory drawing classes, and collaborate with the art teacher at their school. I would like to add the following resources to their recommendation:
- The Art of Botanical Drawing: An Introductory Guide ($19.95) by Agathe Ravet-Haevermans, scientific illustrator at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Read about this informative sketchbook-style guide for beginners.
- Botanical Drawing in Color: A Basic Guide to Mastering Realistic Form and Naturalistic Color ($24.99) by Wendy Hollender, botanical artist, author, and teacher. Read the review about this comprehensive guide.
Dempsey, Brian C. and B.J. Betz. 2001. Biological drawing: a scientific tool for learning. American Biology Teacher 63(4): 271-279.
Search for The American Biology Teacher at a library near you (enter your location in the appropriate field).
Drawing with Graphite Eyes
How do you use drawing as a learning tool in your classroom?