COMPASS Outreach Spotlight: The VISTA Center

As the world was forced to embrace virtual learning, everyone had to adapt, but perhaps no one more than those in K-12 education. Students and teachers had to learn how to communicate with each other using computers and telephones, and they had to prioritize content in order to balance screen time, attention span, and hands-on activities. In making these critical educational decisions, we noticed that art was one of the disciplines sometimes missed in the transition to online education. To fill this gap in art education and empower children to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19, we used our ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grant to offer after school online workshops in scientific visualization to elementary and middle school students in our region.

This program was built on experience developed last summer when the Louisiana Tech VISTA Center, led by Professor of Studio Art Nick Bustamante (Director), Associate Professor of Biology Jamie Newman (Co-Director), and MFA Graduate Student Kayla O’Neal, held a one-week summer camp for high school students on visual communication through Louisiana GEAR UP. The look of amazement when students saw the final pieces was indeed priceless, and we are confident we can replicate that experience for virtual learners this fall. By engaging students in art and science, we taught students critical information and helped them develop new communication skills. We offered an opportunity to those who were learning virtually this year that they otherwise missed in the educational experience.

The same team took what was learned over the summer and applied it to a shorter series of workshops for the academic year. In December, we engaged with children in an after-school program to teach basic drawing skills, review what they understood and answered questions they had about COVID-19, and worked collaboratively with them to develop three final illustrations. Prior to the start of the program, we delivered drawing kits so that each student could have the supplies they needed, along with children’s books the VISTA Center had previously created, in order to provide educational resources and show them the power of illustration in communicating complex ideas. The students in the after school program were divided into three groups and discussed either COVID-19 transmission, COVID-19 prevention, or COVID-19 symptoms. They then worked together and each contributed an illustrated element to a larger image that communicated what they understood about their topic. What resulted were three illustrations that show an understanding of the ongoing pandemic and effectively communicate this information to others.

COVID-19 Transmission: The students shared what they understood about how infectious disease is transmitted. We discussed the need for proper ventilation, physical distancing, and covering your mouth with a mask. The students liked the idea of being outside, as they understood it was safer if air was circulating and not trapped in a room without open windows or doors. With those ideas out there they tried to demonstrate these ideas through art. An elementary school-aged child drew the people, and middle school students drew the house and virus. They depicted what happens when a sick person is inside a closed space with others and how the space can become filled with virus if there is nowhere for the air to go. Conversely, outside, there can be more physical distance between individuals and there is more room for the virus to disperse.

COVID-19 Prevention: The students shared strategies they had learned that prevent SARS-CoV2 infection. This group took the approach of a comic with villains (the virus) and a face mask-wearing superhero. Students discussed how masks, handwashing, and even vaccines will protect them and their loved ones from contracting COVID-19. The story created allowed for each child to create a different element for the illustration that was then used in different ways throughout the design.

COVID-19 Symptoms: The students shared what they understood about COVID-19, what it looks like if you get sick, and how you can try to protect yourself and your family. Students chose those symptoms and strategies that they found most relevant and each illustrated a portion of what was in the final poster. In this group, once again, the students demonstrated a solid understanding of what was happening during the pandemic and together learned strategies for communicating that, as well as being able to show symptoms that are challenging to draw, such as what it looks like to have difficulty breathing or to have a fever.

The support from the ASCB COMPASS Grant allowed us to purchase the kits and bring this experience to students in a way we could not do in person this year. We were able to offer students a new way to share information and discuss their feelings, as we learned through small group conversation and some illustrations that a number of students were afraid. What we have learned over this past year will allow us to continue offering virtual workshops and reach a broader audience, even after we recover from recent events.

The VISTA Center is an interdisciplinary collaboration at Louisiana Tech University that brings the integration of science and art to college students, school-aged children, and the community. Led by Jamie Newman (Biological Sciences) and Professor Nick Bustamante (Studio Art), the team directs students in illustrating complex topics to empower themselves and those around them to better understand science and medicine.

About the Author:

Jamie Newman is Associate Professor, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, College of Applied and Natural Sciences at Louisiana Tech University
Nick Bustamante is Professor in the School of Design at Louisiana Tech University
Kayla O'Neal has an MFA in Drawing from Louisiana Tech University