Using creativity to fuel physics teaching and learning

By Clea Matson - November 2013


van der Veen, J. (2012). Draw your physics homework? Art as a path to understanding in physics teaching. American Educational Research Journal, 49(2), 356–407.

Research Brief

This paper describes the potential benefits of incorporating art into physics education. Drawing and sculpture provide a way of understanding abstract concepts. The process may also allow educators to “humanize” physics and thus make it more accessible to historically marginalized groups. The article indicates that students used art to connect ideas from their everyday lives to theoretical ideas about science.

The author draws on her experience of teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Symmetry and Aesthetics in Contemporary Physics. She asked 44 students to create a drawing or other visual art piece to illustrate their understanding of Einstein's essay “Physics and Reality” (1936/2003). Students also gave written explanations of both the essay and their drawings and participated in class discussions. Some students were physics and math majors, while others majored in non-science areas such as literature and art.

Van der Veen argues that combining physics and art: 

The article focuses on specific examples of student work. In one example, a male student majoring in math depicts science as a reptile. The drawing changes from a detailed, “intimidating” drawing at the tail to a simplistic “stick-figure” drawing at the head. The student explains, “This symbolizes how our sense impression of the real world . . . is abstracted by science until it becomes something simpler . . . to use.” A female art major created a more abstract drawing of Einstein’s essay. She added labels to different parts of her scribble-like drawing: “our sense experience,” “interpretation,” and “thought or expectation.” In her written reflection, the student wrote about the necessity of either having direct experience or imagining a physical experience in order to understand a new situation.

Although previous research on using art to promote conceptual development has focused on primary school students, van der Veen argues that this method is appropriate for older students new to physics. She says that the drawings, written explanations, and in-class discussions provided insight into students' learning processes and preferred methods of learning. This kind of knowledge can contribute to course design.

In addition, van der Veen used the act of drawing as a method of modifying understanding, as a way of helping students to articulate and reflect on what they know. She frames art as a tool for visualization, a method the field of physics has historically used to promote understanding and conceptual development.

Additional data gathered during other class discussions and in interviews with students reveal their attitudes toward science and how those views changed or developed during the course. In some cases, including the case of the second student described above, evidence indicates that the student's attitude toward science in general improved during the course. Van der Veen attributes this change in part to the activities combining art and science, which helped the student to “bridge the gap between concrete and imagined realities.”

Implications for Practice 

Combining art and science allows students to incorporate practices from other settings and use them to understand and communicate complex ideas. The art pieces and resulting discussions can become tools for reflection in the classroom. Incorporating knowledge across settings provides a way for learners to understand their relationship to science and to envision possible roles as scientific thinkers. In afterschool or classroom settings, educators can use art to introduce scientific concepts and assess students’ understanding.

Art, and drawing in particular, is a resource for provoking interest in the sciences. Museums and science centers often use creative exhibit designs to translate abstract phenomena into intriguing experiences and resources. Practitioners in these settings may consider asking learners to draw their reflections on an exhibit or exercise. This practice can help learners to pull from other life experiences in order to deepen their understanding of the exhibit’s scientific content.


Einstein, A. (2003). Physics and reality. Daedalus, 132(4), 22–25. (Original work published 1936).