Nonprofit University Receives National Science Foundation Grant to Improve Undergraduate Biology Instruction Through Art

National University biologist will lead a collaborative project to explore how art-enhanced instruction can improve comprehension and engagement in biology

SAN DIEGO, CA (SEPTEMBER 21, 2023) — National University (NU)—a non-profit, Minority Serving Institution of over 40,000 students with a focus on working adults, educators, parents and current and former members of the military—today announced that it has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support a new academic research project seeking to improve how biology is taught to college students. Biology professor Michael Maxwell, Ph.D. will serve as the principal investigator for a three-year, $400,000 grant-funded project to explore the cognitive and academic benefits of art-enhanced instruction in biology, working in collaboration with faculty at other universities across the country. 

“Today’s college students bring diverse academic, career and life experiences and interests. It’s imperative that we find creative solutions to get students engaged with the process of learning, particularly in rigorous and demanding fields in the sciences,” Dr. Maxwell said. “It’s crucial that NU and other universities that serve growing numbers of non-traditional college students engage diverse students with diverse learning preferences by allowing them to interpret and express course material in personal and creative ways.”

Traditionally, the study of biology has relied on drawing, sketching and diagramming to illustrate living organisms, design experiments and visualize data, by way of field journals, for example. A growing body of research suggests that combining STEM with art within students’ coursework can help learners visualize, understand, and disseminate the results of science research.

“Many non-science majors may have anxiety about taking science courses, but students do so in order to complete their degree requirements. The interdisciplinary approach to teaching science with the humanities might ease students’ anxiety and offer a more inclusive education to students,” said Veronica C. Ardi-Pastores, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at NU and one of three co-principal investigators on the grant. “This research project is about understanding how the integration of the humanities—specifically visual and fine arts—can motivate and engage all students in the biological sciences.”

The project — “Biology Through Art: An Innovative, Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Biology” — will insert art instruction within the traditional biology curriculum. Over the course of three years, nearly 1,100 students in 36 in-person upper-level course sections at NU and elsewhere will participate in drawing exercises intended to increase comprehension of science concepts and student engagement with the course. 

“The findings from this important research project will help to inform teaching innovations at NU and other institutions. It’s a powerful example of how we are building and scaling a research enterprise that creates opportunities for research and scholarship and surfacing insights that will help us better serve the highly-diverse population of students that we serve,” said Dr. Mark David Milliron, president and CEO of National University. “We thank the National Science Foundation for funding this research and supporting us as we seek new ways to surface groundbreaking teaching practices that can enhance outcomes for all students.”

The NSF-funded project grew out of the art infusion Maxwell has used in his biology classes for the past four years. Long interested in art, Maxwell tapped into support from an NU Teaching and Learning Fellowship in 2019 and began to integrate painting, drawing and 3D modeling into his introductory biology courses. Students received in-person and online art lessons from art instructors and, at the conclusion of class, displayed their artwork at local art museums. In 2021, Maxwell received a $67,000 incubator grant from NSF to build a national network of more than 50 biologists, STEM faculty and artists interested in engaging students in biology through art. 

Student responses — through surveys, unsolicited emails, direct comments to instructors and unsolicited emails — to art integrating into science classes have been positive. Students have reported that art projects helped them focus and enjoy a class they had been dreading.

The two other co-principal investigators on this grant are Kristy Forsgren, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at California State University, Fullerton; and Jennifer Landin, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University. 

About National University: National University, a veteran-founded nonprofit, has been dedicated to meeting the needs of hard-working adults by providing accessible, affordable higher education opportunities since 1971. As one of the nation’s largest private nonprofit universities, NU offers over 190+ online and on-campus programs and flexible four-week and eight-week classes designed to help students reach their goals while balancing busy lives. Since its founding, the NU community has grown to 40,000 students and 220,000 alumni around the globe, many of whom serve in helping industries such as business, education, health care, cybersecurity, and law and criminal justice. To learn more about National University’s new possibilities in education including next-generation education, credential-rich education, and whole human education, visit

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