Integrating Alaska’s Art and Science — Spotlight on Laura Conner

Laura Conner
Colors of Nature Café
Fairbanks, AK

We had the chance to interview Laura Conner from Fairbanks, AK to chat about the Colors of Nature Café and get to know about Alaska’s Art and Science.

Laura works in the College of Natural Science and Mathematics as the Director of Education and Public Outreach at the the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also leads several projects which all support youth engagement in science.

Laura Conner, tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program . . . what’s special or unique about it?

Our “Colors of Nature” cafe program aims to show the creative face of Alaksa’s art and science and to also to feature role models that use art.

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Learning about factors that influence insulating propertiesn their science, or at least connect to color or art in some way through their work. We have featured scientists who, for instance, use computer animation to illustrate the biology of whales, or who create “accidental” art through satellite images or microscopic images of pollen. Some cafes have featured artist/scientist teams that have paired up together for specific projects.

Tell us a little about your background . . . how did you come to be involved with your Teen Café program?

Our program is part of a larger NSF grant that explores the intersections of biology, optics, and art through programming for girls, specifically, but also for the broader public. We have all read about the disturbing trends of how girls lose interest in science right around the middle school years. I think part of the reason for this trend is that young people (particularly girls) often perceive science (and scientists) as passionless and dry. But as someone trained as a biologist, I have always found the creative aspects of science to be the most important and enjoyable part of science! Our team is testing whether integrating art and science can be an effective way to build identity with science among girls. We want to change people’s ideas about who becomes a scientist, as well as show that science and art have more in common than people sometimes think. Close observation, creativity, imagination, and problem solving, to name a few, are basic parts of both science and art.

 

Your program has a home with the University of Alaska Fairbanks . . . how do you see it fitting with their mission?

Some of the core themes in UAF‘s mission are connecting with and engaging the community. I think this emphasis on engagement is a deliberate move away from thinking about science outreach as something that is done to people, but rather something that should be done with people. Engagement implies that we value the contributions of participants and recognize that they bring a lot to the table. Science cafes, with their casual feel and the chance to engage with scientists on a human and personal level, are a great way to do engagement-oriented outreach.

What is the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?

We have struggled with the best ways to attract young audiences. We promote our events as “for familes,”  but for a long time we got mostly adults, with just a handful of youth. Having youth mentors made a huge difference. They not only helped promote the program, but helped shape it in terms of what time of day, day of week, type of content, and advertising methods worked the best for the people we were trying to reach.

Measuring insulating properties of fashionable fabrics

Measuring insulating properties of fashionable fabrics

What was your favorite Café? What made it so?

I am a little biased, because I studied courtship and mating as a graduate student. My favorite Café was the one about how birds use smell and color to communicate with each other. The biologist we featured, Julie Hagelin, had the participants design their own mating signals for a real or imaginary bird and share them with each other. I guess I liked it because it was colorful and fun, with lots of sequins, glue, and even perfumes, but also because it brought me back to thinking about the biology of color– my roots, so to speak.

 

 

In general, what do you like best about your program?

I love seeing the participants engage with science through art. We always have a hands-on activity in which the participants explore the science concept through a project that is art or design based. I think this cements the thinking about the concept but it also creates a personal connection and a sense of enjoyment.

Creating imaginary birds and mating signals

Creating imaginary birds and mating signals

 

Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to chat with me. It was fun to learn a bit about you and Alaska’s Art and Science!

 

Can we shine “The Spotlight” on you? Want to take part in an interview? Don’t hesitate to let us know.