Geography students discover the healing power of art
By Pam Lim
From natural disasters and food shortages to systemic racism and legal inequities, geography students tackle some of our most pressing global challenges. But seeking solutions and grappling with complex issues can take its toll on a student’s mental health.
“Students are inundated with dire facts about the state of our planet,” says SFU geography instructor Sharla Stolhandske. “In classrooms, we talk about these huge issues, but we don’t address the effect it takes on our mental health.”
So last semester, in an unconventional departure from traditional geography tools such as mathematics and theories, Stolhandske asked students to create drawings, paintings, poetry or music to express their ideas for how to make sense of our changing world. She wanted them to discover that art could not only help them engage on topics in a different way, but could also improve how they manage their mental and emotional well-being.
“Mental wellness is a hard conversation to have,” says Stolhandske. “On top of that, across all disciplines, but especially science, creativity is not something we focus on as a learning outcome.”
Stolhandske says the assignment generated apprehension as students wrestled with the switch from numbers and theories to creativity and vulnerability. But by the end of the semester, they gave overwhelmingly positive feedback on the art assignment. They had discovered the value of flexing a different muscle, and they went above and beyond in demonstrating their understanding of course materials.
“Academics are important to so many students,” says Stolhandske. “Some feel like there’s little room for error. Add a global pandemic to the mix and it can become very challenging.
“Art offers a way to connect, to express ourselves and to process complex feelings in ways that move beyond traditional methods.”