The Creative Writing course explores the overlap of science and art

On an overnight trip to Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, course students The skillful performer find themselves in a place famous for art, science and the intersection of the two. This outing has all the elements a student would expect from a Monterey-Bay-adjacent retreat – whale watching, tide, bonding with classmates, and a break from campus life. It’s also teacher Sara Michas-Martin’s ingenious way of creating a special atmosphere for a science-themed creative writing workshop.

Stanford marine ecologist Fiorenza Micheli shows the Artful Interpreter class around the Hopkins campus. (Image credit: Sara Michas-Martin)

“There is a breaking down of competitive boundaries when we sit outside and discuss the disappearance of kelp forests or genetically modified organisms. People freely share their ideas in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re around a table with a buzzing light and a whiteboard,” said Michas-Martin, lecturer in creative writing at the School of social science.

The course’s core of trust and open interdisciplinary exchange underpins what Michas-Martin sees as a significant overlap between art and science, which “seek to understand through process,” he said. she declared. Students learn literary techniques that focus on creating an experience for a reader that goes beyond the dissemination of information or thesis-based writing, one that explores the possibilities of simultaneously communicating science and human experience.

Inspiration at Hopkins

After moving near Monterey, Michas-Martin learned she could use the Harold A. Miller Marine Biology Library at Hopkins. She was greeted by librarians and soon introduced to Stuart Thompson, a biologist who invited her to lecture in his second BIO 10SC university course: Natural history, marine biology and research. Michas-Martin then approached Mark Denny, director of Hopkins at the time, about a collaboration between Hopkins and the creative writing program.

“In these turbulent times, scientists are struggling to convey to the public the importance of scientific research and the trust that science and society must share,” said Denny, who is John B. and Jean De Nault Professor marine sciences at the school. humanities and science. “Sara’s course in Creative Nonfiction was designed to instill in Stanford undergraduates a love of writing about science and the skills to do it well. We couldn’t think of a better context to do this than visits to Hopkins and Monterey Bay.

In addition to enabling experiential learning, the collaborative vision gave students the chance to experience the Pacific Grove campus and learn about research opportunities for Hopkins biologists. “Whether it’s seeing whales offshore or being wet and cold in the tidal pools, the Hopkins experience has a way of inspiring people,” said Denny, who has heard many stories of the course from students, many of whom subsequently applied. for the spring quarter in residence at Hopkins.

A real workshop

Throughout the course, students read essays published by physicians, naturalists, cancer survivors, biologists, and journalists. True to a traditional workshop, the core of the course is a group discussion of pieces written by course members.

Artful Interpreter 2020 session students walking along the coast of Monterey Bay. (Image credit: Sara Michas-Martin)

In their writing, students experiment with how to engage, immerse, and inform readers, blending their passion for science with non-fiction creative writing and personal storytelling. Topics span the spectrum of science and human experience, combining computing and tricky housemate interactions, travel and physics, plant biology and sibling competition.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching this class is seeing students break away from a singular way of seeing when given the opportunity to apply creative expression to a scientific problem they are passionate about,” said said Michas-Martin.

“I hadn’t anticipated the deep emotional and philosophical aspects of the plays we read and wrote in class, but accessing the human experience as we explored more scientific or technical information ended up being what drove my interests and writing throughout the class,” said Emilie Kono, co-term bioengineering student, who took the course in the winter term. “My focus shifted from just writing from a practical perspective to trying to capture the beauty I could share with the reader and finding an overlap between science and art.”

The structure of the workshop, the members’ common interest in science and art, and field trips have all combined to help create lasting relationships.

“It was so valuable to have people around me who were interested in the same overlap between science and creative writing,” said Aspen Stuart-Cunningham, 24, an undergraduate physics student. “It’s hard to find spaces for exactly what I want to do and to find people that I see myself in at Stanford, and so I was so grateful to find other people like that and to be so inspired by my peers throughout this class.”