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Drawn to Learning

This post is a short attempt to peel back the curtain on my “bad at pollen” process. Since my very first pollen clinic in the BEAST Lab at University of Maine I’ve been instructed to sketch the pollen as I see it on reference slides and create my own kind of visual library. This approach makes sense — I remember drawing carex perigynia and fern pinnae in my first field botany course, filling my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook with pages of half-erased sepals and efforts to capture anther angles. I’m not a practicing sketch-book type of scientist — my field books from my PhD research are mostly long tables dotted with squashed mosquitos and lists of taxa — but I don’t vehemently claim that “I just can’t draw”. When I was a master’s student, I took at print-making class at Burlington City Arts and got off campus and out of my head for a couple hours each week. I couldn’t completely stop thinking about my research, but I could redirect that energy towards creating screen prints of my study species. I poured over my photographs from my field season and sketched each of the six flowers over and over again.

My Lillstreet Art Center alpine six screenprinted t-shirt and a detail from the original screen.

After I graduated, and moved to Chicago, I took a class at the Lillstreet Art Center and did it again — creating a new alpine plant screen from a new series of sketches of the same six species. But, I knew those plants (even if, as it turns out, our volunteers maybe didn’t know them?), and drawing familiar flowers repeatedly is perhaps a different game from sketching pollen grains and lining the margins with notes like “cute tennis ball” (Fraxinus) and “I think this is a margo” (Acer).

A recent paper in Journal of Biological Education reinforces the idea that drawing plants — or in my case, pollen — can help us develop botanical knowledge. The paper, “A comparison of descriptive writing and drawing of plants for the development of adult novices’ botanical knowledge,” presents a case study that supports the sketch-to-learn model, or at least the sketch-to-better-capture-the-details-in-your-notes model. Drs. Bethan C. Stagg and Michael F. Verde led half-day wildflower events where students filled notebooks with either descriptive writing or labelled drawing for a suite of plants. Later, the students were given an identification test (labeling plants from the learning activities with their common name or noting ‘look-alike’ for trick question species that were not a part of the learning activities) and a morphology test (true/false questions about diagnostic characters of the study species). These were all self-described novice botanists — “the event announcement stated that participants should not be able to identify more than twenty common native plants.” The writers and drawers scored equally well on the tests, but Stagg and Verde found that the sketches captured more recognizable diagnostic characters for each species than the written descriptions.

“Drawing in biology develops students’ observational skills by engaging the learner in close, detailed study of the focal organism,” Stagg and Verde write in the Introduction. They reel off a list of citations, but this connection between drawing and observing in biology has a long tradition in natural history training. In the classic essay “Look at Your Fish,” a prospective entomology student joins Louis Agassiz’s lab in the 19th century and is given a jarred haemulon fish specimen and instructed to study it.

Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish, and now with surprise, I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

“That is right,” said he; “a pencil is one of the best of eyes.”

Ultimately the student spends three days observing this fish and sporadically fielding questions from Professor Agassiz in what sounds like one of the most stressful and bewildering orientation exercises. Agassiz is never satisfied and leaves every interaction cryptically instructing him to “look at your fish” before disappearing for an unspecified period of time. The pedagogical style is outdated, kind of. While none of my PIs pulled a straight Agassiz on me, the essay has been assigned as a reading in natural history courses twice in my career.

My fish is a box of pollen slides. But my fish is also a stack of literature, palynology and conservation paleobiology papers in a field where I am very much still sketching the outlines and learning the vocabulary. Is it possible to bring that pencil-is-one-of-the-best-of-eyes attention to detail to reading indoors instead of botanizing outdoors or pollen-counting under a microscope? The amazing botanical illustrator and comic artist Liz Anna Kozik inspired me to think about this last month.

Liz Anna Kozik draws her response to the academic paper Stemen, M. (2003). Keeping the Academics in Service Learning Projects, or Teaching Environmental History to Tree Planters. The History Teacher, 37(1), 73-78. doi:10.2307/1555600

She tweeted, “I’m going to do quick TLDRs for the articles I read~!” and posted a handwritten summary of the 2003 paper Keeping the Academics in Service Learning Projects, or Teaching Environmental History to Tree Planters with an illustration of a student sitting by a freshly-planted seedling asking “What did I just do + what does it mean?” Liz usually creates artwork that centers the prairie plants she studies, but here, she’s sharing digital sketches of the academic literature. She beautifully distills the papers into these concise take-away nuggets framed by her simple, striking art. Each TLDR page is inviting and memorable —and the process creates so much more meaning than my haphazardly highlighted pdf pages and marginalia from my folder of #365papers.

Liz Anna Kozik draws her response to the academic paper Larson, B. M. (2005), The war of the roses: demilitarizing invasion biology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 3: 495-500. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2005)

I love exploring prairie ecosystems through Kozik’s eyes, but now I can’t wait to see more of her TLDR and follow her reading!


To circle back, I’ve been trying to apply Stagg and Verde’s advice to my pollen sketches — “Participants were encouraged to be undeterred by drawing ability or botanical knowledge and were advised to create their own terms for unknown morphological features.” I’m not quite at the level of sketching paleoecology papers, but my “light freckles, three-cornered popcorn kernel” is slowly becoming “surface psilate, exine indistinctly tectate, sub-triangular to spherical, pores aspidate.”


Banner image: sketch of Kalmia angustifolia on the back of a datasheet by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, summer 2016.


Stagg, B. C., & Verde, M. F. (2018). A comparison of descriptive writing and drawing of plants for the development of adult novices’ botanical knowledge. Journal of Biological Education, 28(2), 1–16.

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