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Art Meets Science: Nonfiction

Open to: Grades 6 - 9
Eligibility: CTY-level or Advanced CTY-level verbal score required
Challenge Level: High School Junior
Course Format: Session Based. See calendar for session dates and application deadlines. 
Recommended School Credit: 0.25
Course Length: 10 weeks (Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter, Spring); 12 weeks (Early Summer); or 5 weeks (intensive Late Summer)
Course Code: NAMS

Course Description

About the Art Meets Science Short Courses

Students discover how creative writing and scientific inquiry offer different perspectives on the same complex and unfolding universe. Central to these courses, readings are inspired by science and provide students with models for creating their own poems, stories, and essays. For example, students might consider how Einstein's theory of relativity has influenced the images and themes of 20th-century poets, or how an essay about childhood memories is enhanced by understanding neuroscience. These courses involve substantial discussion of readings as well as writing workshops in which the instructor and peers offer constructive criticism.

velcro by Dee Breger

Art Meets Science: Nonfiction challenges the common conception that scientists and artists are fundamentally different. Many people view science and art as two of the most disparate disciplines imaginable. C. P. Snow, a writer who also had a background in science, felt that the two should be reconciled, but he also believed that the division had grown so strong during this past century that there were two separate "cultures," and a great divide between them. So, how do we attempt to bridge that gap?

To answer that question, students read nonfiction works by writers such as Annie Dillard, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Diane Ackerman, and Richard Feynman and they write four essays and one substantive revision.

Students interact with their instructors and other students in a Web classroom, and some lessons require pre-writing exercises in addition to a final writing assignment. Also, this format includes a mandatory writers' workshop in which students comment upon each others' work.

This is a very interactive course. Students typically read, discuss, and write at least every other day (academic year) or daily (summer).

A hallmark of Art Meets Science courses is the readings. Students need to read closely and carefully, re-reading whenever possible. In four of five lessons, group discussion of the readings is required in order to complete the final writing assignment.

Read an excerpt. Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks is used in the sample assignment.

This course does not have any synchronous class meetings, but students may schedule one-on-one virtual meetings directly with the instructor.

Students may be invited to interact in CTY community spaces that include students and instructors and potentially specially invited guests that are not enrolled in their course. Student contributions (e.g., projects, forum posts, etc.) may remain in the course after the student completes the course. These artifacts may be preserved to showcase student work or to continue important conversations.

Grammar Note

Skilled, careful writers follow the conventions of Standard Written English, but writing is much more than mere adherence to convention. Instructors discuss grammar only when it affects meaning. Writing courses are not remedial. Students must already be proficient in Standard Written English.

Materials Needed

Students are not required to purchase any additional materials or texts for this course.

Detailed Course Information

Course Details

Copyright rules prohibit displaying readings for lessons to the general public.

Lesson 1: A Personal Encounter with Science

Read and discuss examples of personal essays about science. Think back to early childhood, and write about an idea or object that intrigued you so much that you were compelled to investigate it further. Write about a remembered event in which you made an important discovery. You may use the recall exercise we did as a springboard for this essay, but you don't have to. Draft the essay on your computer, without worrying about the techniques we've studied just yet. Bear them in mind, but don't try to force all of the devices we've studied into one early draft. You'll have a chance to revise this essay later.

Typical readings for this lesson:
Annie Dillard, "Handed my Own Life"
Oliver Sacks, "Uncle Tungsten"

Lesson 2: Scientific Language

Discuss how the readings focus on the terms scientists use in their field of study. Now, focus on a scientific discipline which has language that resonates with you. Perhaps the words are strange and unfamiliar, or perhaps they are whimsical and evocative. Write an essay on the vocabulary of that discipline -- how it personally affects you and how it is perceived by those inside it and out.

Typical readings for this lesson:
Stephen Jay Gould, "The Old Red Sandstone"
John McPhee, "Naming the Rocks"

Lesson 3: Metaphor and Understanding

Consider Galileo's metaphor, Russell's "What Einstein Did," and Lightman's essay, "Metaphor in Science." Write an essay on the way metaphor has increased your understanding of a scientific concept.

Typical readings for this lesson:
Alan Lightman, "Metaphor in Science"
Bertrand Russell, "What Einstein Did"

Lesson 4: Revision

Write a revision of Essay 1. Use the instructor's comments and the comments of your peers (if your essay was workshopped for Lesson 1). Also write a note explaining which comments you used, which you didn't, and the reasons for your choices.

Typical reading for this lesson:
Samuel Scudder, "In the Laboratory with Agassiz"

Lesson 5: Final Essay Question

Throughout this course, we have examined scientific nonfiction as well as essays that specifically address the relationship between science and literature (or the arts in general). In what ways do science and the arts remain different? In what ways are they similar? What role does discipline play in the scientific imagination, according to Richard Feynman? Consider Weisskopf's essay "Art and Science." What is the importance, on a social level, of understanding that science and the arts are both essentially human endeavors?

Typical reading for this lesson:
Victor Weisskopf, "Art and Science"

Time Required

  • 3 hours weekly for 10 or 12-week sessions (Fall, Winter, Spring, Early Summer)
  • 2 hours daily Monday - Friday during the intensive 5-week session (Late Summer)

Sample First Assignment


Welcome to Art Meets Science: Nonfiction

In the next few weeks, we are going to read and write essays that revolve around science. In this course, we will challenge the common conception that scientists and artists are fundamentally different. Many people view science and art as two of the most different disciplines imaginable. In fact, most people view the two as incompatible, and assume that individuals naturally fall into either one or the other category. C. P. Snow, a writer who also had a background in science, felt that the two should be reconciled, but he also believed that the division had grown so strong this past century that there were two separate "cultures," and a great divide between them.

So, how do we attempt to bridge that gap? Snow's 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures" characterized the modern version of this conception, referring to a "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between science and the humanities. Is this really the case? The answer is suggested in one of Jacob Bronowski's poems -- that the principle of reality is "both abacus and rose combined." That is, mathematics and beauty together make up the world we live in. Towards the end of this short course, it will become clear that observation, imagination, and the use of metaphor are all essential aspects of both science and art.

This course, like any writing course, works on the assumption that all of your work could use improvement. If you are entering this course with the notion that everything you write needs no revision, I suggest you adopt a new attitude. In other words, you must be willing to learn to take criticism from your peers in workshop, as well as from your instructor. Also, if you want to write well, you must learn to read well. That means you should be extra-attentive: read closely and carefully. Re-read whenever possible. If you are a fast reader, and you've read something twice, try copying a few lines from the passage to see how much more you can get out of it. Expect to work hard. But if you do, you'll be rewarded. It's fun!

Discussions Are Crucial to This Course

To develop our understanding of the readings and to practice articulating inferences, we will discuss each reading and most exercises. These discussions are conversations that, typically, extend over a week (start and end dates are in the class calendar). To have successful discussions, everyone must participate consistently.

Your instructor may kick off the discussion with a question, may guide the inquiry in a particular direction, and may even call on a particular student to respond. However, students are primarily responsible for the level of discourse. You must monitor discussions frequently. During the academic year, check on each discussion or workshop at least three times during the week -- more is better. During the intensive summer program, participate daily.

You must post at least two significant comments to each discussion. "Significant comments" do not equal "right answers." In discussions and workshops, there are no right answers. Significant comments demonstrate thoughtful inquiry. These comments might offer insights, they might be paragraphs exploring aspects of the reading, or they might be meaningful questions that stimulate further insights. The reward for engaging in the discussions is discoveries that enrich your learning process and make your final writing assignments more profound.

Why is Lesson 1 Different?

Because it is our first, Lesson 1's discussion will be somewhat truncated. Your first set of readings is shorter than usual so we can get to the discussion quickly, reach a consensus, and start writing!

Lesson 1:
Remembering (and Re-Creating) a Discovery of Your Own, A Personal Encounter with Science

Exercise 1: Recall a Discovery

Recall a moment when you made an important discovery or learned something. It may have been a moment when you learned something about numbers, string, metal, light, water, etc. Take 10 minutes to write down all the details you remember about that moment. You can write on paper or in your computer. You're not going to post this exercise, but you may use some of these details in your final writing assignment (but you don't have to). The readings for this lesson both involve an important discovery or learning moment, but I don't want you to look at those until you've completed this writing exercise. Don't worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Just make sure you can understand what you have written.

Readings for this Lesson:Finish by:

Academic Year

Intensive Summer

Annie Dillard, "Handed My Own Life"
Oliver Sacks, "Uncle Tungsten"

Day 4 of course

Day 2 of course

Post two responses to each reading.

We want to learn to write coherent narratives. Both of the readings we will read hold together nicely. That is, they are written in such a way that one, single idea is the controlling idea. No matter how far any one essay may appear to digress, it always ties in to the central theme of the essay in the end.

We'll also need to think about how to sequence action (i.e. chronologically or otherwise), how to shape the structure of a story around a central conflict, and how to present details.

  • Both of the readings are in chronological order. But that doesn't mean your essay has to be! You can play with flashbacks if you like, provided you handle the basics of storytelling first.
  • Both stories revolve around a conflict. Dillard is seeking something. Sacks is recounting the ways that learning about something took unexpected turns. You'll want your story to do more than just say, "I was fascinated by light as a child." (Even though Sacks begins his essay in a similar way, he progresses to a larger concern.)
  • Details make or break a story. There are at least two glorious paragraphs of details in both of the readings. When you eventually write your own essay, you'll want to "zoom in" on a spot in your story where your writing comes alive with vivid description.

Preparation for Annie Dillard's "Handed My Own Life"

As you read, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why does Dillard choose to begin her story with the particular sentence she does?
  • Why all the details in the second paragraph? What's the purpose of using those details?
  • What is the climax of this story? (Think a little on this one.)
  • Does the first sentence indicate that this will be a significant story? Show us how. We'll discuss what "significant" means. Does it have to be earth-shattering or monumental?
  • What does she do to give the story weight? (How does she make a story about finding an amoeba sound important and meaningful?)
  • How does she give the story dramatic structure? (A narrative essay -- an essay that is essentially a story -- describes a series of events. Some events are more emphasized than others. Which events does Dillard emphasize, and which does she de-emphasize?)
  • What is the climax? Is it the discovery of the elusive amoeba ("Finally" is a false indicator) or a realization? What does she realize?

Preparation for Oliver Sacks's "Uncle Tungsten"

Take a close look at the first paragraph, paying special attention to how Sacks conveys his excitement about metals. The first sentence is strong; we know right away what the essay will be about, and how important the topic is to the author. The essay you're going to write will build upon a childhood memory or childhood memories about your own relationship with something scientific -- that is, anything material or any phenomenon of nature that aroused your curiosity.

"Bronze! The word was like a trumpet to me...." What word resonates with you? Is there a concept that you are attracted to that is accompanied by wonderful language? (In the next lesson, we will be reading about the language in some disciplines of science.)

Finally, consider how Sacks's curiosity grows from liking the visible and tangible properties of metals to wanting to explore their unseen properties? What makes him want to know more? What puzzles him? How did this progression affect you as a reader? Notice how Sacks uses emotions in his piece: the idea that people are made of elements both delights and frightens him. Also notice the string of question marks, which build in intensity. You probably felt the suspension mounting; think about how artfully he achieved that effect. How might you achieve a similar effect in your own piece?


Given the stories we've read, do you have a sense of what an appropriately significant event is? We've seen many techniques and devices in Dillard and Sacks. Look back on all of the discussions. Boil them down to a few techniques that you found helpful. You might try different styles. Annie Dillard chose to write about her relentless quest for the amoeba and all the exciting discoveries she made along the way. Oliver Sacks panned out on his childhood and his love of metals, first describing his relationship with each one, then expanding into metals in general. (Each of the three pieces has an element of awe in it. This is where the artist and the scientist meet: at the point where there is beauty and wonder in the everyday things!)

Let's recap. So far, we've examined two personal memoirs about science in depth. When you write your final essay for this lesson, you will create your own essay following these models.

In the next several lessons, you will be examining nonfiction that confronts scientific ideas. For example, Lesson 2 will allow you to explore the way scientific language has influenced your perception of a particular field. The next lesson will be a revision of the personal memoir. The following lesson will cover the role of metaphor in science. Finally, we will incorporate all of the reading and writing from the course in the final lesson, in which we will discuss the role that science plays with respect to writing nonfiction.

Final Writing Assignment

Now that we've studied some examples, I'd like you to begin constructing a personal essay of your own. Think back to early childhood, and write about an idea or object that intrigued you so much that you were compelled to investigate it further. Draft the essay on your computer, without worrying about the techniques we've studied just yet. Bear them in mind, but don't try to force all of the devices we've studied into one early draft. You'll have a chance to revise this essay later.

Due by: See Schedule.

Technical Requirements

This course requires a properly maintained computer with high-speed internet access and an up-to-date web browser (such as Chrome or Firefox). The student must be able to communicate with the instructor via email. Visit the Technical Requirements and Support page for more details.



"I really liked this course because before I did not like writing, but I loved science. The course combined science with writing, so I enjoyed writing a lot more."

"It's great that Johns Hopkins offers this course. I can learn about advanced topics in the summer only because of them, and their quality of teaching is great. Thanks for making my summer a great one!"

"I liked the discussions because we really got to share ideas. I gained a lot through the discussions. I am glad that the course included such technology."

"One of my best classes. Some of the reading was challenging, maybe too much so. Alan Lightman's essay was hard, as was the last piece."

"The teacher was great, and the course was well-organized. I know C___ loved it and it brought up a lot of discussions and issues at home. We're looking forward to more classes!"

"Ms. U___ was good, and the other kids in the class seemed to be involved. My son enjoyed the interaction."

"K__ provided excellent and well thought-out comments and criticism in a prompt fashion. We are looking forward to the next session with her."

"This was my son's first CTY Online course. He expected more reading assignments than writing. However, his writing skills improved immensely by incorporating what he learned in the readings into his writing. He enjoyed the course."

"Course seemed to get off to a slow start; assignments were spaced far apart. As a homeschooler, A___'s time may have been more flexible than that of other students, and it was sometimes frustrating waiting for the discussion to get going.
Nice work on the revision process!"

"The readings were fabulous and the writing assignments stimulating. The feedback on individual writing assignments was also very thoughtful and helpful. I thought the course could have been improved by having more topics raised on the discussion board by the instructor - the discussion seemed stilted without a lot of back & forth, and some topics seemed "finished" after only a few kids had responded."

"The coursework was challenging enough to stretch my child's abilities, but within her grasp. The instructor was very accessible to any questions or inquiries we had."