Fostering Environmental Awareness from a Young Age: A Case Study from the IGES Art Contest

The 2012 First Place Winner: "Wetlands: A Heaven of Wildlife" by Phoebe Chiu, Grade 3, Ohio.

The 2012 First Place Winner: "Wetlands: A Heaven of Wildlife" by Phoebe Chiu, Grade 3, Ohio.

Theresa Schwerin, Laura Delgado López and Brandi Bernoskie
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies


Capturing and understanding our environment through art is as ancient as the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings, and as modern as the latest satellite technologies. Throughout history, we have seen the environment and nature showcased in various ways — sacred Native American art, landscapes by J.M.W. Turner and photographs by Ansel Adams. Satellites have offered a new perspective. Satellite images often showcase the beauty of our planet and have emerged as a meaningful way to engage the public. In June 2012, NASA announced the public’s top five favorites in the “Earth as Art” collection, composed of images taken from the Landsat series of Earth observation satellites during its 40-year history. And in November 2012, the agency published ‘Earth as Art,’ featuring images from several environmental satellites, including Landsat, Terra, Aqua, and Earth Observing-1 (EO-1). This popular collection brings forth the beauty and diversity of the planet through remotely sensed data, with color-enhanced imagery revealing features and patterns not always visible to the naked eye.

While artistic representations of the Earth can engage people of all ages, art can specifically be used as a creative gateway to learning about science and the environment for young students. In a recent study, early childhood researcher Kumara Tarr found that arts-based pedagogies were effective for teaching young children about the natural world, and observed children had enhanced understanding and expanded environmental awareness, in particular , new ideas about the care and nurture of environmental features with which they identified [1].

Tapping into children’s imaginations and natural curiosity about their world can also help them develop the skills necessary to be successful in science. Observing, measuring, visualizing, designing, experimenting and communicating are just some of the shared connections between science and art. Exposing students to science through visualization “integrates science into a student’s understanding of the world” [2]. In a similar manner, art can serve as an introduction to the scientific process: students are asked to observe the world, visualize their artistic piece, draft designs, perhaps draw some sketches to experiment with what will and will not work in the piece, and judge if the result accurately communicates the information they intended to present [3]. In addition, “art-based activities can help students comprehend abstract scientific theories and improve their critical thinking skills,” [4] as students have to integrate different scientific facts to create a coherent, concise image.

Since 1996, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), a Virginia-based nonprofit that advances Earth and space science education and environmental monitoring, has sponsored a national science and art contest for students in second through fourth grades throughout the U.S. [5]. This article discusses the lessons identified and learned throughout the 17 years of the contest, including valuable feedback from teachers and parents, which may be relevant to the development of programs using art and science as a way to educate children about the environment and to foster greater environmental awareness.

The IGES Art Contest: A Case Study

The annual IGES Art Contest was established as an innovative way to engage young students in thinking about the environment, and began as a means to generate art for IGES’s annual holiday card. Children were invited to think about and draw their favorite thing about the environment, and in response to feedback from teachers, the contest quickly evolved to a more specific theme that could support elementary education. While having a theme helped to focus students’ artwork, the theme needed to be broad enough so teachers had the flexibility to integrate the contest into their curriculum. Feedback from teachers included ideas for themes, such as climate zones, which would allow them to integrate geography, science, reading and art.

As it evolved, the annual contest has had a different theme each year to encourage students to develop greater awareness about the environment by learning about different parts of our Earth, our relation to the changing planet, and how we explore it. Recent themes include “Wonders of Weather: What Do You See?” in 2011, “Habitat: Imagine That!” in 2009, and “Connect 4: Air, Land, Water and Life” in 2005.

The contest is aligned to U.S. national science and art education standards and it provides a framework — designed for teachers or parents to engage students in the theme — for initial guiding questions, resources and classroom activities. Students use books, websites, videos and other resources to research the contest theme, and then use their new knowledge to create an image showing what they have learned.

A panel of artists, scientists and IGES staff members judges the entries. Each year, the hundreds of entries received are carefully cataloged, then considered with several criteria in mind including adherence to the theme, artistic quality, scientific accuracy and theme-related standards.

Lessons Learned

Throughout the years, IGES has received positive feedback from teachers and parents who have contributed to the contest. Several teachers have incorporated the contest in their lesson plans and often make participation a regular part of the school year.

Developing a connection with nature

For many young students, particularly those in urban areas, the world may not extend beyond their immediate environment. These students often have difficulty seeing how remote environmental regions and issues might have an impact on their lives. Students can expand their horizons and connect to far-away places through researching, reflecting on and visualizing these areas. The Internet, videos and books can also connect children to places they have not, or cannot, experience firsthand.

The IGES Art Contest presents an opportunity for students to explore new topics individually and with their classmates as they learn about the contest’s theme. Consider the following anecdote from a Mississippi art teacher, whose class participated in the 2007 contest, “Exploring the Ocean from Top to Bottom!”

“During our studies, I turned my art classroom into an underwater environment. Every day we watched the live Web cameras online at the Monterey Bay Aquarium while we drew ocean pictures. I also added some blue tissue paper to some of the windows and we listened to the ‘oceans theme music’ which was incorporated into the aquarium website. The links provided were great resources and I will continue to use them to extend this unit in the future.

Throughout this unit, I was surprised by the genuine sparks of interest and the creativity expressed in the students’ projects. They have shown a real desire to explore the subject further…

I chose this art contest this school year to soothe student fears of the sea after more than 200 of our students were left homeless by [Hurricane] Katrina. However, our students didn’t show a great fear of the ocean. Instead, these units have created a deep interest and…even a love of the sea for these students.” [6]

Evidence of students making a personal connection to the subject can also be seen when the children include themselves in the scene they draw. Certain themes invite this kind of connection, such as the 2004 theme “Picture Me: What Kind of Earth Scientist Would I Be?” Students were asked to consider how they would study the world, if they made it the subject of their career. In subsequent years, students occasionally have submitted artwork that places shows themselves, or others, investigating or interacting with the environment.

Addressing Misconceptions

Table showing common misperceptions associated with art and nature Art can serve as a tool to address students’ naïve conceptions or misconceptions. For example, the theme for the 2006 contest was “Polar Explorations: Going to Extremes,” which was selected to coincide with the International Polar Year. In preparing for the contest, IGES identified common elementary student misconceptions related to polar science and regions, which was provided as background information for teachers, along with student books, websites and movies, chosen to reinforce the intended understanding.

The artwork that was received demonstrated that students could grasp and depict the intended understanding. For example, in “The Life and Story of Antarctica” third place winner Jimmy Dawley shows a biodiverse and active environment with several animals interacting in the scene. Included in the background also is a building where people can work to help advance our understanding of the region.

Assessing Student Understanding and Progress

Teachers can use an artistic assignment of this nature at the beginning and end of a lesson or unit to assess student understanding of a subject. “Art activities can provide a wide range of significant opportunities for using scientific ideas interpretatively in ways which make them meaningful” [8].

Teachers wishing to incorporate this kind of project into their lessons could ask students to draw what they already know about a topic. These initial depictions can help identify misconceptions or knowledge gaps on the subject and can help the teacher frame the discussion toward addressing these issues. After reading and learning about the subject in class, students are asked once more to draw what they know about the subject. This presents an opportunity to engage the class in a discussion about how the images are different and how their understanding of the subject has evolved. One New Jersey teacher, whose students participated in the 2008 “Trees: Making a World of Difference” contest, said the students did “their own research about trees around the world and were amazed at the variety of species.” [9]

The exercise also can be used to identify subjects or concepts that students are having a harder time understanding. For example, in 2011 IGES received several submissions for the “Wonders of Weather” contest theme that depicted tsunamis, which are not a type of weather. These art pieces could have been used to begin a discussion with students about the differences between atmospheric phenomena unique to weather and other natural events, such as tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Research by the University of Georgia on using art in environmental education evaluation [10] revealed that higher environmental affinity and awareness corresponded with higher art rubric scores. Their research implies that using art in environmental education evaluation could help educators identify children’s preconceptions and misconceptions, and that art evaluations may provide new insight into environmental education programs.

Making contests relevant to educational curriculum

While many of the contest participants take part in the contest through programs like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and art clubs, the majority of entries are submitted as class projects. An elementary classroom in particular provides an environment where a multidisciplinary approach can easily be used to integrate subjects. The nature of the contest and the provided resources allow teachers to incorporate elements of scientific understanding, visual-spatial relationships in art and reading for comprehension.

Contest themes are selected to incorporate national science standards for second, third and fourth grades. The 2012 biodiversity theme, “The World’s A Place of Living Things!,” drew on standards the diversity of life and systems, content standards identified in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061. Visual arts education standards also provide an opportunity to incorporate environmental science into the elementary curriculum. The Visual Arts Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools exemplifies this by requiring their students to identify distinguishing characteristics of landscape, seascape, and cityscape [11]. Science and art teachers can develop plans for their classes or collaborate to more fully integrate the lessons of each subject, and stress how art and science inform one another.


Art can serve as an effective tool to introduce and engage young students in science and the environment. Built around an annual theme developed to align the concepts and subjects taught in the elementary classroom, the IGES Art Contest has contributed to expanding students’ awareness and interest in the environment. When incorporated in lesson plans, artistic exercises such as the IGES contest can help support and assess student understanding of complex subjects, such as habitat, biodiversity and weather. The lessons learned through IGES’ experience implementing this contest can serve as a starting point for others who wish to develop programs aimed at using art to introduce students to scientific subjects.


[1] K. Tarr, “Enhancing environmental awareness through the arts” Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 19-26, Sept. 2008.

[2] S. Halpine, “Introducing Molecular Visualization to Primary Schools in California: The STArt! Teaching Science Through Art Program.” Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 81, No. 10, pp. 1431-1436, Oct. 2004.

[3] K. Rommel-Esham, “Do You See What I See? An artful approach to introducing science-process skills.” Science and Children, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 40-43, Sept. 2005.

[4] R. Alberts. (2008, Dec.) “Discovering Science Through Art-Based Activities,” Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. [Online]. Available:

[5] Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Art Contest. (2012, Dec.) [Online]. Available:

[6] S. Thames, correspondence with Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Dec. 2007.

[7] National Research Council. National Science Education Standards, 1996. [PDF Document]. Available:

[8] M. Wenham, “Art and Science in Education: The Common Ground.” Journal of Art & Design Education, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 61-70, 1998.

[9] K. Chencharik, correspondence with Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Oct. 2008.

[10] A. Flowers, L.R. Larson, G. T. Green, J. P. Carroll, & A. Shenk, “Using art in environmental education program evaluation,” presented at the North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Conference. Raleigh, NC, Oct. 12-15, 2011. [Poster]

[11] Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia. (2000). Visual Arts Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools (2000) [PDF Document] Available: