Exploring Transdisciplines: Middle School Students Explore Art & Ecology in Virtual Worlds

Mary Stokrocki
Arizona State University, USA

Citation: Stokrocki, M. (2019). Transdisciplinary excursions: Middle school students explore art & ecology in virtual worlds. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-16

Abstract: Transdisciplinary Art Education is the unity of disciplines by an overarching theory or concept. For three years now, middle school students and I have delved into real life ecological problems such as predator and prey relationships, keeping life in balance on the OpenSim virtual world. Students constructed their own installations with uploaded drawings at my Hive, acknowledging the biological importance of their eco critters that they researched. The next year the same students built a 3-D critter installation and wrote a group story, Night Nests with Pests, strengthening their perceptual cognition (nature of creativity as problem solving and metaphoric thinking) guided by real life and moral concerns. Contextual studies and participatory action research methods demand role-reversals, in which researchers become transdisciplinary co-learners whenever they step into new situations.

Mass Media Technology

Early research on mass media technology began with the 1925 radio series Art in Everyday Life for adults and continued with art education researchers Edward Mattil and Alice Schwartz’s Meaning in Art instructional television programs in the 1950s (White, 2004). Jerome Hausman (1966) led the efforts to examine and change art education components. He stated, “We need to go beyond the shallow use of arts in mass media and offer students ways of interpreting subtle messages” (pp. 131-133). Vincent Lanier (1966) challenged art educators to explore new media. Famous for communications and humanistic theory, Lanier tried to teach the Beatlemania generation art appreciation by determining what they value and then teaching them to critique their products (mentioned in Hausman, 1966). June McFee (1966) further addressed the problem of mass media and its effects on social change. She asked us to (1) offer students more alternatives, (2) evaluate the subtle messages of the one-way electronic communication system, and (3) to consider interdisciplinary education (McFee & Degge, 1977, p. 131).

Continuing their concerns, Stokrocki (2009/2005) internationally called for interdisciplinary examples. Keifer-Boyd (2005) added four intersections of technology with art education: cross-cultural, intertextual, longitudinal, and creatively collaborative (p. 1369). These conditions demanded courage in order for researchers to proceed in spite of criticisms and challenges, so that the art education community is continually informed about effective art teaching practices in diverse educational contexts (Stokrocki, 2004) including electronic and digital means.

Digital Contexts

Electronic contexts are those now controlled by a computer or computer network. These electronic contexts include student-centered versus teacher-centered instruction (Galbraith, 1996), interactive versus passive learning (Julian, 1997), multidirectional rather than linear thinking (Taylor, 2000), conversational learning style rather than a talking-heads television format (Garber & Stankiewicz, 2000).

Micro and Digital Ethnography and Action Research

For over 30 years, I have been doing qualitative studies in real life, notably microethnography, based on Eisner’s (1991) qualitative research methods and McFee and Degge’s (1977) ethnographic study of different cultures. Ethnography is a research method of studying various cultures or transdisciplines (Stokrocki, 2014a). In so doing, we empower various peoples to assume control of their own lives/identities (Stokrocki & Andrews, 2010).

Digital ethnography, on the other hand, is the systematic study of immersive human societies embedded in the Internet, rooted in the real world, including such proficiencies as collaboration, global communication and interaction skills, 3-D mapping and construction, observing cultural play, analyzing chat/discourse analysis, and interviewing avatars (Stokrocki, 2014b). Researchers become learners whenever they step into new situations (Stokrocki, 2012), and desire to understand them from a practical view.

This ongoing practical action research case study involved one investigator (myself) and six-eight students in one school exploring their local desert environment for over three years (Clark & Creswell, 2015). Like Patton’s (2013) game studies, “Action research [on virtual worlds] is a reflective process of progressive problem solving that lessens the space between knowledge generation and the process of teaching” (p. 39). No correct way of action research exists. I used data collection, content analysis, and comparative analysis. For data collection, I used daily observation and screen capture, pre and post questionnaire, and informal interviewing (Stokrocki, 1997). I started with simple basic questions and as the study progressed, I noticed that students were learning informally from their explorations to other virtual world sites as well. This research methodology also empowered various people to assume control of their own lives/identities in the digital world of Second Life (Stokrocki & Andrews, 2010) including artists with disabilities (Krecker, Stokrocki, & Wexler, 2012).

Context: Real Life and Virtual

Later, I was invited with local students to participate on the Open Sim. In real life, the Sonoran Desert School is located in Gold Canyon Arizona in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, as part of Apache Junction School District about 40 minutes east of Phoenix. The small contract school offers online computer classes from the fifth grade to high school with an enrollment of 75 students. Dr. Sandrine Han from the University of British Columbia offered me a section of her VCER Island on the OpenSim virtual world for such teaching, which she referred to as gamified pedagogy and research (Han, 2015; See Figure 1). Such teaching is open-ended and students need to cooperate together to solve problems.

Screencapture: ASU virtual world desert hive on the Open SimFigure 1. Research on the ASU virtual world desert hive on the Open Sim.


Findings included ecology information and nature of learning from prequestionnaires, creating fauna & flora creatures, 3-D cave structures, and post questionnaires.


When I asked students the first year What is a Desert, they mostly insisted that it was a hot, dry place. I also asked what desert they lived in and they overlooked the name of their school “Sonoran Desert” to highlight the place “Arizona.” When I asked them to define ecology, they simply stated learning to live with other creatures. Then I introduced ecology as “the study of organisms and system connections firmly rooted in an understanding of relationality… and the co-ethical nature of co-dependent connections among beings and natural/built communities” (Gradle, 2007, p. 397).

First Year: Uploaded Fauna & Flora Drawings Made into PhotoShop Transparencies

In 2014, six middle school students and I, the Queen Bee, delved in the ecology problem of pesticides and the importance of maintaining predator and prey relationships (Kingslover, 2000). After choosing their avatar characters and learning simple navigation and camera angles, students drew animals and desert plants. I made them into Photoshop transparencies and uploaded them and students mounted them onto simple prim or box forms (Figures 2 and 3).

Screenshot of student cave creatures and 3D nestsFigure 2. Students constructed a simple cave installation of their drawn creatures and 3-D nests made from simple dome forms and concrete texture.

Screenshot: Eco Problem Treasure TestFigure 3. Later, we made an Eco Problem Treasure Test about their eco critters and the bees that they researched.

The Second Year: Building and Linking 3-D Creature Forms

In 2015, three students repeated the study and clearly enjoyed the challenge of building three-dimensional animal characters with a sculpted form that they could stretch in any direction like clay putty. Linking the basic prims/forms was not easy because as one female complained, “I had to use two hands — one left hand finger constantly on the Shift key and a finger from my right hand selected the form.” This seemingly easy task took constant “disciplined” repetitive action.

Emerging Class Model for Building

One student’s dedicated practice later became the class creature model. Jacob helped his classmates adjust their size X (length), Y (width) and Z (thickness) coordinates (Figure 4). I timed him and discovered that the Build task could be completed in one two-hour class.

Screenshot: Jacob's creature "Ratty" with class interface for building a creatureFigure 4. Jacob’s Creature [Ratty], Class Model for building a creature object.

Evolving Creative Alliteration

Jacob also joked about his creature in a clever rhyming way. He stated, “At night, Ratty [the pest] prowls around for prey.” Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of each or most of the words in a sentence. This “clever, creative word arrangement adds musicality to any piece of writing, making it more compelling and memorable” (Donovan, 2016). Thus students enjoyed the challenge and simple poetic writing became an emerging discipline and the title of the class presentation. Writing clever caption responses using poetic alliteration emerged as fun and challenging task.

Screenshot of installation titled "Night Nests with Pests" showing creature habitatFigure 5. Jacob jokingly came up with their installation title, Night Nests with Pests.


Finally, I distributed an open-ended post-questionnaire to ascertain students’ learning. What did you learn when exploring virtual worlds? They remembered that they lived in the Sonoran Desert, that the desert gets about 13 inches of rain, that even the pests and prey are valuable, and to leave them alone. Students also mentioned the words, “problem-solving, patience, and persistence that I had drilled about digital and transdisciplinary creation (LifeSciTRC © 2008-2016). They also mentioned to help each other and community support. Kristian further learned, “Follow the (Ecology) environmental rules/codes & need to blend/harmonize.”

Comparative Analysis: Ask the Biologist: What’s a Pest?

After contacting the website Ask a Biologist at Arizona State University, students learned about the impact of pests after deciphering the pests’ subtle messages. Biologist Matt Chew answered, “A pest, animal or weed, is any living thing that exists where you don't want it. One person’s pest is another person’s pleasure. The city, county or state you live in may have relevant laws.... Thus, are weeds and pests born” (Personal correspondence, Matt Chew, Retrieved from http://askabiologist.asu.edu/contact/askaquestion, June 01, 2015).

Art Education can lead by exploring with school students eco problems from their own real life context and sharing them globally (Stokrocki with Barnes, & York, 2014). Students learned about the excessive use of weed killer. They learned that we needed some of these predator insects to kill the dangerous prey that carried diseases (Kingslover, 2000). Students also learned that bugs [pests] would be our future food and big business (CBS National News, 2013). Our study of insects, Night Nests with Pests: A Case Study of Creative Placemaking and Exploring Sonoran Desert Ecology on the OpenSim now reaches global audiences (Stokrocki, 2017).


My desert hivebecame aknowledge farm with (1) a land model to showcase transdisciplinary learning about fauna and flora creations, (2) made by 3-D modeled virtual world build scripts to replicate real life (RL) models, (3) including responsive conceptual metaphors, and (4) eventually resulting in an interactive space. In this virtual world space, avatar folks can hang out, share their knowledge, and even participate in study groups. Students strengthened their perceptual cognition, metaphoric thinking, and understanding of the nature of creativity as problem solving (Messina & Stankiewicz, 1979). In so doing, children teach children, and adults too, as we learn together (Keifer-Boyd, 2005).

The Future of Transdisciplinary Research Using Virtual Worlds

Virtual world making is not mere playing around. Students learned that it is a challenging process of problem solving and thinking differently. Their installation was a way of world making (Goodman, 1978), linking forms and ideas (Marshall, 2005), and unifying different disciplines with an overaching concept (Klein, 1990). The future demands negotiation of contextual findings as a method of conflict resolution and as a result of the “push and shove” of democratic ways. Negotiation does not come without some degree of pain and heated argument. The question is not if we are qualified to teach certain concepts, but are we willing to take risks, do we have the courage to struggle with the problems, and are we humble enough to learn from our mistakes (Stokrocki, 2009).

The future of research demands more collaborative partnerships, where students and researchers should regard themselves as cultural workers for the betterment of equal access to knowledge (Lackey, 1994). This research also needs to be both ethical and self-critical (Bresler, 1996). It should embrace agency, critical awareness that leads to informed action to counter processes of domination and leads to identifying and solving problems and is guided by moral not logical concerns.


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List of Figures

Figure 1. Research on the ASU virtual world desert hive on the OpenSim.

Figure 2. Students constructed a simple installation of their drawn creatures and 3-D nests made from simple dome forms and concrete texture.

Figure 3. Later, we made an Eco Problem Treasure Test about their eco critters and the bees that they researched.

Figure 4. Jacob’s creature [Ratty], class model for building a creature object.

Figure 5. Jacob jokingly came up with their installation title, Night Nests with Pests.

Mary Stokrocki

Dr. Mary Stokrocki is Professor in the School of Art, Arizona State University. She was a 2012 Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, 1995–96 World Bank Curriculum Consultant in Turkey, and now 2019–2020 Co-President of NAEA Women’s Caucus. She has authored seven books, 25 book chapters, and over 120 journal articles. Her most recent awards include the 2017 NAEA AED Technology Award, 2014 Distinguished Lecture Award 36th Honoree in the History of Art Education Miami University. She is 2018–19 Co-President and award winner of Women’s Caucus McFee & Rouse Awards, former President of USSEA, and InSEA Vice-President & World Councilor.