Heidi Chapin instructs a class in in how to do scientific illustration on Ankeny Field.

Written by

On a clear October day, students sit scattered across Ankeny Field, cross-legged with sketching notebooks balanced in their laps, using pencils, pens and colored pencils to capture the countless trees surrounding the grassy center of campus.

It's a scene typical of any college campus art class. Except these students aren't just artists - they're budding scientists.

The course is Scientific Illustration, a class taught by Whitman's Science Outreach Coordinator Heidi Chapin. Through the course, Chapin combines her passions for art and science, while also teaching students vital scientific skills - like observation, attention to detail and creativity.

Sophomore Annika Scherlie, who plans to major in studio art, uses watercolors to capture the fall palette of the trees around Ankeny. Scherlie arrived at Whitman thinking they wanted to be a science major, but soon discovered that they preferred a more observational way of interacting with the natural world over the analytical one they found in most of their science classes.

"This class allows us to look at science in a very observational way, allowing us to be more present in the natural world without having to analyze it," Scherlie said. "We are able to get outside and observe things that we wouldn't normally observe. I've noticed things like where all the squirrels are going, when the leaves are changing, the interesting composition of the seed pods on the ground that I wouldn't have seen before. It's a very different approach and I think that people of all disciplines can gain something from the observational views taught in this class."

And that's exactly the point, Chapin said.

"I feel like for a science student in particular who may be focused on taking a lot of classes in the sciences, whether it's geology, chemistry or biology, being able to have an art experience is important. This class stretches their brain, encouraging them to record their scientific observations through drawing, thus creating an important bridge between art and science that I think is often missed," Chapin said.

Chapin studied at the University of Santa Cruz, graduating with a double major in environmental studies and art with a concentration in scientific illustration and field sketching. She came to Whitman in 2012. As the coordinator for the Science Outreach program, she oversees events that bring Whitman students and the sciences into the Walla Walla community. While her job title doesn't include teaching art or illustration, Katie Parker discovered Chapin's area of study and wanted to learn more about how she could bring together her two passions in art and science. Parker worked with Chapin to create an independent study course.

"We had a great class. Since then, I've had lot of students come to me and ask ‘hey, you're teaching that class again? I really want to take it,'" Chapin said. "There was a desire for the class to be taught from both students and professors who see the interdisciplinary value."

Now the course is an official part of the curriculum, and Chapin has taught it twice as a course and once as an independent study.

Despite her degree training, teaching scientific illustration skills was a new experience for Chapin, she continually returns to techniques to become familiar again with them to better help and instruct students with their journaling and observation assignments.

"I'm teaching, but I'm also learning along the way as well," Chapin said.

The students don't need experience with art to take the course, and its open to all majors. Chapin meets the students where they are with their art abilities. Chapin starts class off with about 20 minutes of demonstration of either a new technique or a new medium. Then they have time to draw, while she walks around to review their journal entries. In between classes, students work on journal assignments based on new techniques and subjects they have learned.

"We start with pencils, move to pens, then we add color with colored pencils and watercolor. We talk about and use those mediums throughout the semester," she said. "Then we talk about techniques. We have classes on feathers and furs, how to draw the complicated spikes of a hedgehog, how to draw different kinds of trees."

Chapin works with students on the questions or frustrations they had while journaling and explains tips and tricks to alleviate the frustration. More often than not, one of the upcoming classes addresses the techniques the students are missing.

Helping students discover the small changes in technique that they can do to make their illustrations pop off the page are Chapin's favorite moments.

"You have to make decisions about what you want to communicate with your audience, especially in science communication," she said. "Every week there's somebody who has this ‘aha moment' with the subject matter, these moments are my favorite because we are sharing the work and learning together."

At its heart, the class is about slowing down and looking at the world in a methodical, detailed way.

"It's not something people do very much these days, taking an hour and a half to look at a flower and find out how the petals interact with each other," she said.