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NIU STEM Café explores connections between art and science

November 15, 2021

We often think of art and science as very different processes. But for NIU art education faculty member Kelly Gross and artist, STEAM teacher and NIU alumnus Jolien Genus, art and science share the same processes of investigation, research and relationship-building.

At the next STEM Café, these two artists and educators will present “Artistic Process and Scientific Principles: Art as a Process of Investigation.” They’ll discuss how they engage in hypothesizing, documenting and interpreting scientific principles in the art-making process, and they’ll answer questions from the audience.

Kelly Gross explores art making with children, using light and shadow.

Gross, who holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in art education, as well as a B.F.A. in industrial design, will share stories from her artist residency at the DuPage Children’s Museum, where she led children in projects exploring light, shadow and storytelling.

“Children used art to investigate how and why shadows change, the color of light, and how light colors mix compared to pigment colors,” says Gross. “We worked together to use this knowledge to create narrative stories through shadow puppetry.”

While engaging in hands-on art projects with students, Gross used the experience to conduct research into how open-ended prompts and projects serve as a catalyst for student interest, helping to expand knowledge of how artmaking can be used to teach a wide range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts.

NIU alumnus Jolien Genus (M.F.A. 2007) will discuss his artistic evolution from graduate school to the Peace Corps and Hawaii. As a STEAM educator with master’s degrees in both art and social work, Genus brings a unique perspective. His artworks investigate the relationship between painting and STEM and the relationship between art and the social work theory of Person-in-Environment.

Artwork by Jolien Genus

“As a science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) teacher in an elementary school in Oahu, Hawaii, I believe that relationships are key to making STEAM education more holistic,” says Genus. “Whether we’re working with people on projects or making improvements within ourselves, some form of ‘Relational Science’ that teaches communal values, self-care, mindfulness, dignity preservation, democracy and conflict resolution is integral for a lifetime of problem-solving.”

Genus teaches his students to reflect on the trash they generate by looking at the effects of the North Pacific Garbage Patch on their island of O’ahu. He has also explored the interconnections of humans and the environment during his 15-year evolution as a painter and artist rooted in Hawaii who uses safe, sustainable materials to create bold works.

“My presentation will highlight my journey in becoming a Hawaii artist. This journey involved investigating a variety of paint products, surfaces like canvas, paper, wood panels, etc., and brushes made from different materials, as well as fine tuning my technical abilities in using the materials,” Genus says. “Re-thinking, evolving, redefining and refining my artistic product in the context of relationship helped me find a middle ground to pursuing my ambition in art with materials that are sustainable for the environment.”

This online STEM Café is free and open to the public and will take place via Zoom. Register and find more information at

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are part of NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. This café was developed in collaboration with the NIU Asian American Resource Center. STEM Cafés are supported by Bayer Fund and Thermo Fisher Scientific. For more information, visit or contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or [email protected].