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lisa wang writes on chalkboard

Schreyer Scholar and biology major tutors science through art

Lisa Wang, with the assistance of a Student Engagement Grant, uses art to help students better understand scientific concepts
12 April 2024

Humans use science to help understand their world and art to express how they experience it. When these seemingly opposite disciplines come together, they can powerfully enhance learning.

When trying to master the interconnected systems of the natural world, creating a visual aid can help turn a mountain of information into a more manageable molehill. Lisa Wang, a second-year biology major and Schreyer Scholar, has recently done just that with the development of her “Draw with Me” tutoring program for Biology 141.  

Wang explained how science-based courses, aside from displaying charts during lectures, do not traditionally use art to promote active retention of the material.

“Many science classes will include diagrams in their presentation, but the extent of interaction with the figures is the instructor talking about it for a few minutes,” Wang explained. “There is no motivation for students to reproduce the diagrams on their own, to use the diagrams to relate concepts, or to summarize the big picture.”

Her passion for teaching and her artistic talent inspired her to push the boundaries of learning and use her skill sets to help creatively tutor others.

The idea for the program began when Wang received a grant from the Penn State Student Engagement Network in spring 2023 to pursue a scientific illustration course. Throughout the course, she learned how art and sketches could be used to convey scientific concepts. At the same time she was taking this course, she was also completing her training to become a learning assistant for the Eberly College of Science.

Here, she learned the importance of visualizing concepts for students during tutoring sessions. Taking the illustration course and completing the training sessions concurrently presented Wang with an innovative idea; combine what she was learning in these programs and create her own drawing-based tutoring program.  

The Biology 141 instructor, Mike Zeman, worked closely with Wang to workshop her idea for the tutoring sessions. The two previously had a mentor-mentee relationship through the Student Engagement Network, with Zeman as the network’s director. So, when Wang approached him with an idea for a drawing tutoring course, he worked with Wang to implement the idea into his classroom. He shared that Wang’s vision for the course was a one-of-a-kind innovation, and her dedication to helping other students excel is nothing short of inspiring.

“Her approach to connecting science and art has not only enriched the learning experience for students but has also illuminated the boundless possibilities that emerge at the intersection of these disciplines,” Zeman shared. “Her dedication to connecting diverse disciplines inspires and propels us all forward."

Wang and Zeman believed the complex biological systems that were taught in his course offered an ideal opportunity to pilot a program that featured learning in a visual format. “Draw with Me” ran for four sessions in spring 2023, and was offered to students as an extra-credit study group opportunity. Students voluntarily attended the out-of-class sessions, which were scheduled to directly supplement the system taught in class that week. Despite the program’s limited run, Wang was able to strategically form connections with the class content and improve learning for those seeking clarification on the material.

During each session, students broke down a new biological process, following along with Wang as she drew each segment of the system on the chalkboard. Wang described how she used her knack for drawing to present the course material in a way that artistically showcased the major themes and takeaways of each lesson.  

“One of the methods that I use is that I draw a bigger picture and then break it down into pieces to see how it all connects. I think it's easier when you are able to see the entire process in front of you and be able to put the pieces together,” Wang explained. “In studies, I've read before there is something to do with dual coding, where you are thinking about it so it is cognitive but you are also drawing it out, which is the second layer of where that memory is coming from.”

The concept that Wang refers to is Allan Paivio's 1986 Dual-Coding Theory, which is the idea that human cognition is separated into verbal and non-verbal processing systems. The theory explains that there are subsystems of cognition, one for processing non-verbal objects like imagery, and the other for processing verbal language. Understanding the mechanics of this area of human cognition, Wang took the initiative in crafting a program that activates both processing systems for students. She explained, using the topic of kidney filtration as an example, that creating visual systems of organization was key to teaching students successfully.  

“If we were talking about the kidney system, for example, I would focus on what the kidney looks like, and what other organs it is connected to,” Wang said. “Then I would go deeper into talking about the nephrons and how they are organized, and then go deeper into how the ions move. Then I would come back at the end and put it all together.”  

Taking the scientific illustration course last spring was not Wang’s first time dabbling in the intersection of art and science. Growing up, she had a natural talent for drawing and an appreciation for art and illustrations.  

She began to fuse science into her artwork during COVID-19 when she started a bird drawing Instagram account. On the account, Wang created detailed bird sketches and uploaded them along with biological facts.

“Art has definitely been a passion for me growing up. The bird drawings I just started to do over COVID,” Wang shared. “I needed a creative outlet, and at the same time, I was interested in environmental awareness. I thought, why not combine them.”  

drawing of two birds by Lisa Wang
An illustration from Lisa Wang's Instagram account Credit: Lisa Wang

Her tutoring program helped Wang’s passion for art expand and, at the same time, created a space for students to explore a new method of learning. She surveyed the students who participated and received some intriguing feedback, she said.

“Students said that it greatly improved their understanding because I was able to give them a clearer picture of the overview of the system itself,” Wang said. “A defining comment was that the sessions exemplified integrated notetaking that also enhanced information recall. I have had a few students that have drawn before and some of them were telling me that these sessions validated their learning strategies.”

A seasoned veteran of the tutoring scene, teaching others has always been a source of joy for Wang. Helping students form connections and improve their understanding is what originally motivated Wang to become a Penn State learning assistant, she said. Her past experiences tutoring throughout high school inspired her love of helping others excel academically and taught her how to work effectively with a diverse group of students.

As a biology student herself, Wang shared how she is simultaneously enriching her own comprehension of these systems through her “Draw with Me” program. Before each session, Wang spent hours diligently reviewing each concept, ensuring that she knew how to break down the system and reorganize it in a way that was clear to students. Through this hard work, Wang shared how she was improving her understanding of these topics, which she said has proven to be valuable in her biology classes.

“Last semester, I spent over four hours prepping for a session,” she said. “Going back to the kidney example, because I spent so much time on that diagram, it solidified it in my brain. In Biology 240 we were just talking about the kidneys, and I knew what was going on because I had that prior experience of explaining it to other people.”

Successfully turning an idea into a self-sustaining program is not a solo endeavor, Wang explained.

She said her experience as a Schreyer Scholar gave her the confidence, resources and overall support system needed to create “Draw with Me.” From the communication skills gained working for the Schreyer Medical Team to honors classes that sparked her love for biology, Wang said the program would not be what it is today without the Schreyer community encouraging her every step of the way.

“Overall the experience I’ve had in Schreyer has been very nurturing. With the Med Team or any other programming that I do, it helped develop my leadership and communication skills with other people,” Wang shared. “When I have an idea and I am compelled to do it, I feel really comfortable in this Schreyer space that I know who to connect myself to.”

Lisa Wang in Rome
Lisa Wang on her Rome study abroad trip. Credit: Lisa Wang

A recent study abroad trip also helped to deepen and expand Wang’s passion for science and art. The embedded course, "Anatomy in Italy," allows students to examine how Renaissance art reflects the development of anatomy and scientific discoveries. During the trip, Wang learned more about the historic connection between the scientific world and art in the sculptures, paintings, and wax models of the Renaissance period. She shared how the trip amplified her passion for anatomy and art, and how she hopes to apply her experience abroad to her drawing tutoring sessions.

“The trip deepened my interest in the intersections of art and science and my professional interest in utilizing art to better medical education. It also made me more certain about my approach to using art to teach physiology, and I am excited to continue my role in Biology 141,” Wang shared. “Just like the Renaissance artists who learned anatomy by close observation, Biology 141 can be encouraged to think about their drawings and how form and function relate.”

The future of the “Draw with Me” program is bright, said Wang, as there is potential to transition the program from an extra-credit offering to a permanent in-class addition. With a natural drive to help other students reach their academic goals, Wang has been diligently working to update and improve the program. Her goal is to make this powerful learning tool more accessible to those who need it.

With plans to attend medical school following her time at Penn State, Wang said she aspires to dig deeper into connecting this drawing course with higher-level medicine. She emphasized how clear communication and visualization are vital in the medical field, especially when conversing with patients. Wang said she hopes to use the skills formed in these drawing sessions to explore the intersection of arts and science further in her post-graduate years.