Finding an Arts Collaborator in Your Institution

So, you’ve gotten interest in STEAM, and maybe you’re a STEM faculty member (like me) looking for collaborators in the arts. How does one go about it?

Well, there are several routes that you can try. This post will address collaborations within your institution.

Cover art for the High School Trigonometry Wikibook

Cover art for the High School Trigonometry Wikibook

1. Use Existing Professional Connections   If you’ve been engaged in university-wide, or Arts & Sciences-wide committees or activities, you may know faculty members in departments that include the literary, visual, or performing arts. If you approach them, they may have an interest in collaboration. This route didn’t pan out for me – none of the people I already knew seemed to be intrigued by this type of work. They were each engaged in their own projects and didn’t have an interest in the sciences. STEM can be a tough sell with some artists. Also, I started with few contacts in the arts at my institution.

2. Connect Through Chairpersons  Try to connect to a wider group through department chairpersons. I sent an email about a STEAM workshop to the chairs of departments that engage  in the literary, visual, and performing arts. While I got great attendance from the STEM departments,  plus a fabulous science librarian and an adjunct professor from the School of Education, I didn’t get a single person from those arts-related departments. It was never clear to me whether the announcement reached or went past the chairs. Maybe your experience has been different?

3. Go Higher Up the Administrative Ladder  Deans, provosts and presidents have a bird’s-eye view of their charges. When I spoke to my provost, she directed me to a professor in the Theatre Department. She and I had a great chat and are discussing collaborative possibilities!

4. Take a Detour  Keep in mind the possibility that the arts professors in your school may be better connected to arts institutions than they are to anyone you know. I found a great collaborator in my university’s Art Department through collaborators at the Peabody Essex Museum (www.pem.org). I wonder if I’d find more through the local theater company or a writers’ collective.

Good luck!

The Buzz

Hungarian postage stamp issued to publicize the value of savings and insurance

Hungarian postage stamp issued to publicize the value of savings and insurance

Many creative projects in STEM classrooms are about their subjects; fewer include their subjects in the art. But Sarah Hatton, a visual artist and bee-keeper residing in Quebec, has incorporated her focal species into her work. She’s arranged dead honeybees in mathematical patterns such as a Fibonacci spiral to dizzying effect, a reminder of the damage caused by neonicotinoid pesticides on bee navigation (http://sarahhattonartist.com). A collection of thousands of dead bees all in one place is a sad and compelling reminder of the ever-expanding crisis facing our most valuable pollinators. For a recent article on her work see http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-11/21/bee-art

Tropical STEAM

Warm breezes. White sand beaches. Rain forest. Tiny frogs that sing you to sleep.

All of this could be the setting for your adventures in collaborative research in art and science this January. The week-long visit to Puerto Rico is run by biologist Dr. Saúl Nava (http://saulnava.com) and visual artist Ms. Stephanie Dowdy-Nava (http://stephaniedowdynava.com), co-founders of the ART + BIO Collaborative (http://www.artbiocollaborative.com). How do you think travel influences art/science research?

Discover_Puerto_Rico_U.S.A.,_WPA_poster_-_park

Discover Puerto Rico U.S.A., WPA poster, ca. 1938

In addition to their travel-study course, the Collaborative organizes art/bio events that often include a public education/science communication component. This organization interests me because its goals align quite nicely with my interests – they aim to build collaboration, develop art+science curricula, and promote a cross-disciplinary, holistic approach to discovery in settings as varied as research labs, studios and public spaces.

Acting/Science Mashup

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Let’s face it. Science has an image problem. Part of that problem arises out of a complicated history, but much of it can be attributed to the fact that scientists can have a hard time communicating science in a clear and compelling manner.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org) uses the art of acting (as well as other techniques) to improve science communication. Located in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism (https://journalism.cc.stonybrook.edu), faculty members include highy-respected theater professionals, journalists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as the extraordinary Mr. Alda (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000257/). Through summer institutes on-site and customizable workshops held at locations around the United States, the Center trains researchers, professors, health care practitioners, and graduate students to more effectively teach complex scientific ideas to a wide variety of audiences. Improvisation plays a central role in this training, helping participants to understand how they’re heard by people who lack the same expertise.

Could a collaboration with your university’s theater department improve teaching? What about student presentations?

Mr. Alda hosted PBS’ American Scientific Frontiers (http://www.pbs.org/saf/) for more than a decade and is deeply committed to public education in science.  The actor, director, screen-writer and author is best known for his work on M*A*S*H and The West Wing.

(See also an earlier related post about Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre: https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/act-like-you-mean-it/)