Illuminating Van Gogh: First Graders Explore the Art & Science of Light

We begin and end with the nighttime sky…
What sounds as though it could be from a poem is actually a description of a first-grade science unit that dovetails neatly with a project in the students’ art class. Each winter, first-graders embark on a study of light with Lower School science teacher Lynn Prosen. They begin with natural light—the moon, the sun and the stars. When they are about halfway through, their art teacher Jaime Diken introduces them to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, and in particular The Starry Night. What makes that painting a particularly suitable connection to what they are learning in science is not simply that is has stars, but that it invites the viewer to see stars in a new way—a way that captures something essential about the way light actually behaves. Diken notes that, to the first-graders, those swirling, pulsing, radiating stars of Van Gogh’s make perfect sense. "Children really love Van Gogh’s paintings," says Diken, "but in a different way than adults. While we tend to marvel at his surprising use of color and the curving lines that fill the canvas, kids don’t find those things surprising. They wonder why more people didn’t paint like Van Gogh."
For Prosen, the connection also underscores that fact that light is a vast area of study, one that cannot be limited to science. "If I had forever to teach light, I could fill the time," says Prosen. "Light connects with so many other areas of study—from the mythology surrounding constellations to the way the brain perceives light to the way different artists capture light."
In a more practical way, the Van Gogh link also provides Prosen with a framework within which to teach light to first-graders over the course of only 10-12 classes: We begin and end with the nighttime sky. Along the way, Prosen is able to deftly bring the young learners through a series of lessons that follow naturally from one another until they come full circle to where they started. "They begin by observing patterns in the sky—starting with the moon, its phases and its relationship to the earth and sun," says Prosen. From the moon, the students transition to the sun, studying its elliptical path and the 13 constellations through which it passes—the 12 from the zodiac plus the less familiar Ophiuchus. From the constellations, the students explore individual stars: how they are formed, what they are made of, why they appear to be different colors and how their light reaches the earth. This leads to an investigation of the way light moves and also how it interacts with transparent, translucent and opaque materials. Interestingly, as the students hold flashlights directly against plastic cups, the patterns they see are vaguely reminiscent of Van Gogh’s radiant swirls. Another class or two, and the young scientists are producing light on their own, with the help of LED bulbs, batteries and some wires.
With their new-found knowledge of circuity, the first-graders then use copper tape and LED bulbs to illuminate their collaborative version of THE STARRY NIGHT. When the tiny bulbs are lit and spill out onto the star swirls the students created, it is part science, part art and part magic.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.