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By Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators

Every year the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators is given the opportunity by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to demonstrate our skills at the Philadelphia Flower Show. This is a wonderful chance for our organization to explain the fascination of botanical art to the world at large.

Some of the artists think this is great fun. But some do not. It is certainly different from the peace and quiet most of us experience when painting. People crowd around us. Small children want to see what we’re doing – up close. School groups ask endless good questions. It can be stressful.

It’s all a matter of attitude. The “best” attitude is that of a teacher who thinks that botanical art is the most fascinating subject in the world (which, of course, it is). You have to accept the obvious that there is no way that you’ll have the time to paint an entire watercolor. Maybe you can do a little work on one to show how laboriously slow it is. But do not expect to finish it. It is better to bring examples of your sketches, notes, drawings, tracings — whatever led up to the final artwork (which is shown on the wall behind us).

Instead of painting, your time will be taken up with talking to people: explaining how important it is to really “see” the plant, to understand how it grows and reproduces, to show aspects of the plant that photography cannot capture. You can possibly show how artists create form, a feeling of three dimensions. You might briefly touch on the long history of botanical art going back to the Egyptians. You must, however, talk in “sound bites.” Every sentence has to be a headline. And don’t be riled if your audience drifts away. Don’t expect to hold their attention.

You are there to rouse interest that might find an outlet at another time. Who knows? Your audience might someday take a botanical art class. They might become avid painters of wild flowers. They might even buy one of your botanical watercolors. But it’s not going to happen during the demonstration. So relax. Enjoy yourself. Stay calm and carry on.

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Jennifer, how do you use drawing in your classroom today?

: Thanks to my dissertation, I developed a course in Biological Illustration. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only one of its kind because it’s a biology class. We cover diversity and anatomy of plants, fungi and animals, how to identify groups or species, and linking form to function.

From my experience, illustration is a great way to teach comparative anatomy, evidence-based thinking, and of course, observational skills.

The course has been a huge success – we recently doubled the class size and the students have now exhibited their work at a state museum and aquarium. Check out student work here and here.

Readers, do you have questions for Jennifer about using drawing in your classroom or program?

Ask your questions today

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You make many interesting suggestions for future research in your paper. How have you continued your research into the use of drawing as a learning tool?

: Actually, my recent research has been in textbook graphics. While writing my dissertation, I became very interested in the history of drawing as a classroom activity. Teachers used to ask students to draw specimens and copy figures from their textbooks. As I looked at those old textbook figures, I became interested in the changes that have taken place over the last 100 years. I recently submitted a paper on the Cell Anatomy graphic. From my research, there have been surprisingly few graphics; most are copied from other textbooks.

Like the “looking behaviors” of the student participants, it’s fascinating to see designers drawing the idea of a cell rather than just looking at an actual cell. I also have to wonder if these graphics create misconceptions for students because there are a number of inaccuracies.

I do expect that my current research and drawing as a learning tool will recombine in the future.

Do you have a question about textbook images?
Ask Jennifer!

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Jennifer, twice in your dissertation you bring attention to students’ indifference towards plants. In one instance you observe that one of the two exercises in which student performance was the lowest, was an exercise about drawing plants. You share a student’s comment about plants being “kind of dull to draw” (Landin, 2011). You also share that during the plant lab, students did not work in their Lab Workbooks and paid little attention to the teaching assistant. You also mention that some students viewed the plant lab as not being very important. Do you have any thoughts or hunches about what might be contributing to student indifference towards plants?


That is an excellent question.

I have three ideas (just opinions really): 1) a majority of students in the biology program are planning on health careers so they tend to be very focused on humans; 2) a general human-centric focus of society; 3) a lack of knowledge about plants.

I think all three conditions could be addressed by a better understanding of plant biology. It’s interesting that biology classes about a hundred years ago were more equally focused on plants and animals. Now though, even with the increase in understanding of cell biology (which is so similar between plants and animals), we teach mostly about animals. If you consider the decrease in agricultural pursuits, society has really lost a ton of awareness about plants.

It’s too bad because plants are incredibly fascinating in defense mechanisms, competitive behaviors and symbiotic relationships. There’s so much ACTION in plants, but it’s mostly chemical rather than physical.

I would strongly encourage teachers to use more plants in their lessons – they’re easy to grow in a classroom, students can have a sense of “ownership” when they care for a plant, and there are so many great topics to cover using plants (history of agriculture & society, medicine, biological competition, experimental design, where food comes from, etc.).

Readers, have you encountered student indifference towards plants in your own classroom?

Share your stories

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Designing a research project requires an incredible amount of thoughtful and methodical planning. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Did all go smoothly for Jennifer Landin during her investigation of the use of perceptual drawing in the classroom? Did she encounter any problems?

I asked her. She replied:

Did I ever! I come from a science background – research on plants, animals or cells is SO much easier than research on people! It was a real learning experience for me.

The biggest issue involved conducting research in an actual class. Many educational researchers do this – it’s the most convenient approach. But I think I’d conduct individual testing in the future. By simplifying the activity, I could control more variables, monitor individual behaviors better, and end up with much better data.

The most unexpected event was…

Read More

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On Monday Jennifer Landin told us how she collected data for her research. Did the data collected through testing tools, her Observational Skills Assessment, interviews and weekly observations support her hypothesis?

Well, yes and no. In the case of content knowledge, the students who drew did perform slightly better on the assessment. But there was only a tiny difference in their class grades. Considering that students were only drawing for ~5-10 minutes per week, though, the differences I saw between the groups were incredibly interesting.

For Attitude-Toward-Biology, I ran into an unexpected problem…

Find Out More

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What kind of data did Jennifer Landin collect in her studies about the use of perceptual drawing in the classroom?

I measured knowledge of biology with a pre- and post-test (kind of like a short final exam). I also asked students to take an Attitude-Toward-Biology test and my Observational Skills Assessment. I supplemented these tests with interviews, questionnaires and weekly observations of student behaviors.

All of the students had the same lecture class and same lab activities. So, as much as possible, all the experiences the students had in class were the same. The only difference was a “Journal” randomly assigned to each student. Some students had drawing activities to complete, others had writing tasks.

More About Our Conversation with Jennifer Landin

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