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Marine Science Educator Erica Warren Engages Students’ Imagination with Creative Ocean Art

Those of us who teach children every day are always on the hunt to find engaging tools and creative ways to instruct our students. Luckily, when you teach marine science education you have a fantastic array of ways to spark the imagination and ignite the learning process. We’ve discussed how to use play to excite children, and the value of providing experiential training for middle school and high school students. Now, Erica Warren, Marine Science Educator with the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, shares with us how she uses ocean art to engage her students.

ocean art
Erica Warren uses art to engage students in marine science education.
Photo credit: Rietta Hohman.

Tell us a bit about your background. When did you first feel your artistic spirit rise?

Family has always been really important to me and my grandmother was an artist. I was given really good materials from the very beginning. When I was a growing up, my mom would ask me to make little crafty things, like an angel for the Christmas tree, or paint our walls with anything from my imagination. Crafting was a big part of it and I learned to physically make things in various ways from a young age.

There always an aspect of making utilitarian things beautiful. There was less of a focus on making paintings to hang on the wall or just things to look at – our family made useful items beautiful. In regards to how my art began, I would always think, “How can this be meaningful to my life and what can I say about the people in my life with my artwork?” The aspect of sharing is important to me.

In high school I was always involved in digital arts, and it was a natural and fitting to allow this to progress, and so I attended college for digital arts, as well. My artwork in college was abstract, developed specifically around the natural world. I was very interested in how we can explore shape and color to create artwork that grabs the viewer and pulls them into the natural environment. I was interested in creating art that was two or three steps removed from realistic art.

My ocean art began when I hired as a marine science educator for the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association. It gave me the opportunity to use art as both a teaching tool and to share how wonderful the ocean is with our students.

How does ocean art engage children in marine science education? How does it help them grasp the concepts you are teaching?

Art in education provides a way for children to engage and create, and afterwards you can use the item they produced as a diagram. For example, a salmon printing helps us appreciate the anatomy of a fish. Printmaking with the blocks teaches students about diversity and anatomy, while allowing them to create something beautiful that they can take home. This ocean art is specific to species that we teach about, and is a more exciting way to learn about these animals than lectures.

What artwork have you created to teach students about the ocean?

I’ve created multiple printmaking blocks, four giant Chutes and Ladders games, and I’ve employed various teaching techniques using origami, clay, and coloring books.

Last year I created a large grey whale for Travesia at the San Francisco Zoo. It hung there for three months and over 400,000 people saw it. The zoo has kept that piece and a number of my students and my friends that have taken photos next to it!

ocean art
Erica’s beautiful gray whale engaged 400,000 visitors over three months during the Travesia exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo.
Photo provided by Erica Warren.

Tell us about the Chutes and Ladders games you created.

We partnered up with a team of scientists from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine on a National Science Foundation grant. They were looking for partners who could help translate the science and develop the educational aspect of their work for children. The Chutes and Ladders game we developed is all about waterborne pathogens, and how they affect marine mammals, such as sea otters and sea lions. We made it life-size so that it fully encompasses the children in the ups and downs of the game, allowing them to experience concepts rather than just listening to information.

The games that I created were derived from a solid foundation of science. I painted three of the marine mammal pathogen games, which are distributed in San Francisco, Davis, and Santa Cruz. I also painted one game that focuses on the life cycle of the common murre, an amazing seabird with really interesting adaptations that lives along the California coastline. This game lives with us at the sanctuary headquarters.

Where do you find your inspiration for each piece? (other than being paid to do them!)

There are a number of ways I approach each piece. For the printmaking blocks, I try to figure out how graphic I can make them – how to make the lines communicate clearly while still giving each piece an artistic edge. I’m able to play with texture and lines within a confined square space. I try to make the pieces anatomically correct with room for interpretation. It’s a fun challenge!

For paintings, I use the depth of my imagination. I think about how I can sneak really interesting or cool animals into the artwork (like, how many sharks can I paint into a marine mammal pathogen game?). I incorporate weird yet educational items in the animals’ environment that might affect them. For example, on square 8 of the marine mammal pathogen game there is a big, steaming pile of poop from a cat. This communicates clearly that pathogens can travel via feline feces and infect marine mammals. The overall game connects how pathogens from land can travel through watersheds and out to the sea. The kids really react to this square – they either hate or they love it, but either way it makes a lasting impression.

Is it different for adults? How do they respond to your artwork?

It’s different for adults because they respond more to color and texture. The grey whale was received well because it had depth to the paint and great detail that adults could appreciate. When adults are intrigued by a piece, they’ll move closer and make the extra effort to learn about it and why it’s there. They are more curious about the story and the message behind the artwork.

What is your favorite piece of art that you’ve ever created?
For my ocean art it’s the been the ability to create the printmaking blocks, specifically the elephant seals. I also love the grey whale.

For my own work, I created a large piece that was entirely squares and lines that was my interpretation of how plants grow in soil. If you’ve seen a cross-section of a flower, it’s similar to this, but instead of being on a micro-level it’s on a macro-level and more abstract. It is purely for aesthetic pleasure, rather than trying to convey any educational content.

What future projects do you have in mind?

I would love to go into exhibit design and craft visual pieces that have durability, utility, and an aspect of beauty. These exhibits would have an educational purpose, to help communicate about ocean and environmental concerns, such as plastic pollution. I’m also very curious about pursuing printmaking, and learning new techniques and using different materials to make more complex images.

I want to make a difference in the environment with my artwork and my profession. I’ll be pursuing a masters degree in environmental management at the University of San Francisco. It’s an exciting adventure because I don’t know exactly where it will lead!

Art in education

The best way to teach children is to engage them in something active, creative, and constructive. Ocean art – whether students are actively making it or they are just using it – provides an excellent tool for teachers to convey important lessons with creativity. By engaging students visually with ocean art, marine science educators ensure that the lesson makes a lasting impression and helps foster a more informed generation of young ocean stewards. Join us in crafting a creatively sustainable future and purchase your seafood from distributors certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.

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