Interactive learning about Global Environmental Problems with Art

The first week of classes this semester at Case Western Reserve University, I took my Global Environmental Problems class to the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to learn about environmental problems confronting water resources and freshwater ecosystems at Alexis Rockman’s exhibition, The Great Lakes Cycle.

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Magnificent paintings provide a chronological representation of the environment beginning the last glacial maximum and progressing through the period of industrialization and resulting pollution and impact to water resources and various species. An amazing interactive learning tool, A Dive into The Great Lakes Cycle, created by scientist Jill Leonard and artist Taimur Cleary at University of Northern Michigan (UNM) was accessible at MOCA and can also be purchased for use outside of the museum.

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Following our visit, I asked students to revisit the museum as groups assigned to each of the five primary paintings in the exhibit and to utilize the UNM website that dives deeper into the science behind the art, which involved 3 years of research by the artist and many references to scientific research.


Above is a photograph I took of Alexis Rockman’s painting titled “Watershed”, which address issues of urban industrial waste, freshwater contamination, genetically modified agriculture, food production and consumption, and environmental impacts that are often not seen on the surface, but underlay ongoing environmental issues.

As a follow up in class, students examined references including peer-reviewed scientific journals and government reports to interpret data and share with one another the themes they investigated more deeply in each painting. We used this exercise to discuss sources of data and information and the importance of investigating sources. In a follow-up class, the students from each painting group will present to the rest of the class their interpretations and the science behind the painting on which they focused.


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