Self-Made Undergraduate STEAM

Rand Theater

The Rand Theater is the primary performance space that the UMass Amherst Theater Department uses for their large shows, with large amounts of seating and a full array of theatrical aspects including lights, sound, fly rails, removable stage pieces, and a scene shop directly behind it with large bay doors to move scenery back and forth. (Nicholas Calow)

A little while back, I had the pleasure to attend a party at the home of Christine and Sean Doherty in New Hampshire. Christine and Sean (http://www.pointnatural.com), by the way, have each taken a holist approach to science, and both have artistic backgrounds, hers visual, his musical.

While at the party, I was lucky enough to meet Nicholas (Nick) Calow (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ncalow), an undergraduate at UMass Amherst (UMass Amherst). We had a great, if brief, conversation about his academic program, one that he’s put together to address his own strengths and passions. To date, this blog has focused to a large extent on the needs and efforts of university faculty members with regard to arts integration in science teaching, and there was that one post about the few university programs that offer a STEAM focus [link here]. But what about all of those students at universities that don’t offer such programs? How can they negotiate academic programs that address STEAM? This interview with Nick will offer one example.

LD: Hey Nick! So tell me, what year are you at UMass Amherst?

NC: I’m currently a sophomore at UMass, but I expect to be there for five years instead of four because of my double major with Theater and Electrical Engineering.

LD: Okay, so what was behind your decision to do a 5-year double major? Another option, I imagine, would’ve been to do just a single major and maybe a master’s degree later.

NC: My decision came from working over the summer at the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company doing Twelfth Night in Boston Common (http://commshakes.org/). While working there, I saw the type of life theatrical electricians would live, and wanted a bit more than that. I’d already committed to being a theater major, but I figured that an electrical engineering degree on top of that would really help me in the field of design as well as operation. The field I would like to enter is known as stage automation, which is basically using mechanical means to move scenery and lights in a predictable manner, eliminating the human element of scenic manipulation. Since I’d like to design those systems, an engineering degree on top of a theatrical one would be a huge benefit.

umass m5

M5 is a study and work space for electrical engineering students at UMass Amherst that Nick has used a few times. It has a variety of useful tools and experts in their use who support the students. (Nicholas Calow)

LD: I’ve attended those performances on the Common – wonderful stuff. So your particular intersection of art and science arose from experience in professional theater – I think the real world is often less siloed than the academic world. Is there a typical preparation for stage automation? Would people working in that field have typically have completed a double major similar to yours

NC:I don’t know many people in the field, but from what I understand many people who are automation techs come from an engineering or a theatrical background, rarely both. A cursory Google search found me this little blurb about it though: http://getinmedia.com/careers/stage-automation-technician. And my plan actually is to design automation systems, so that’s more advanced than being a tech.

LD: Are there logistical challenges that come with this pair of majors – schedule conflicts or expectations of the two departments that don’t fit well together?

NC: There is a large time commitment for both majors, but in very different ways. For engineering, I will need to be doing more homework and tests than hands-on projects, and with theater it is the opposite. When I get higher into both programs, finding enough time for it all will become more of a challenge. Another annoying aspect is the way both majors schedule their classes. With engineering, it is very regular, twice or three times a week for an hour or so, and labs on another day at another time. For theater, there is usually only one or two class times a week, but those times are much longer, and can interfere with the other classes I am taking. As with most college students, I have to be very careful when I make my schedule that nothing overlaps.

LD: So far, have you found any ways to use knowledge or ways of learning/thinking/understanding from one major in courses for the other major? 

NC: I haven’t started my engineering major just quite yet, but I can imagine in my lighting and set design classes that knowing advanced math or physics would be of great use. Also, since I’m entering the major at a later date than most would have, I have developed better study skills and time management that some freshmen might not have, which will come in handy once I start being really busy with both majors at the same time.

LD: Do you anticipate doing a project for credit that combines both fields? Is there an option to create your own interdisciplinary directed study or research course? If you did create such a course, would the course have to exist in one department only? Could you have an advisor from each department for that type of course? 

NC: In a way, I am already doing something like that. Right now, I am currently working on a project in the theater department under my advisor to utilize an old motor down in the stage trap room to act as a usable piece of technology. Using a bunch of programming that I will be doing myself, my goal is to get the motor to a point where you can interface your laptop computer with it and be able to control every aspect of it; when it starts, how fast it goes, its acceleration, when it stops, and so on. I would imagine that since it’s directed at the stage and solely for the stage, any projects I would do would be based in the theater department, with occasional help by the engineering department.

LD: And what will that motor be used for?

NC: The idea is to use the motor in conjunction with the stage to move large objects through various mechanical means. It could be set under the stage to turn a large rotating platform, it could be attached to a winch to pull a heavy cable on command, it could be used with a pulley to move something across the stage, and so on. After I complete this project, I plan to continue creating a toolbox of sorts for the theater department, learning and improving as I go.

LD: Do you know any other undergraduates who are bridging the divide between art/design and science/engineering/math in their studies?

NC: I’ve found that people who do bridge the gap between art and science are the exception, not the rule. There may be some in assorted examples, but people tend to be in either one or the other, not both. There can be many benefits to what I’m doing with it, as it is guiding and shaping me as I go along, but it also is taking me an extra year to graduate.

LD: Thanks, Nick! It’s been a real pleasure. Please keep me updated on your progress so that we may share it here.

theater

Bowker Auditorium is one of the places where Nick frequently designs with the UMass Theatre Guild. It is the space where they put on their larger shows. (Nicholas Calow)

Does the Art Have to Be Good, Revisited

So, I’ve been reflecting on my use of the arts to teach biology over the past two years.

My goal is for students to learn the science, not for them to become good artists of any sort. And I can’t teach the arts or design to them beyond the ways in which those arts or design are part of my own training.

"Max contrast Brain MRI 131058 rgbce" by Nevit Dilmen (talk) - Own work.

“Max contrast Brain MRI 131058 rgbce” by Nevit Dilmen (talk) – Own work.

I like the use of the arts in learning. The art that’s created doesn’t have to be good art because it isn’t ever presented. For example, students can act out transport through xylem and phloem (the vascular tissue of plants), bring props, include music that’s meaningful to them, and use movement and each other to embody a process that is normally challenging to understand. New, smart scientific questions get asked and answered through experimentation using movement. There’s joy in this learning. And rigor. Shouldn’t these two always go together? If a dance or theatre professor co-taught this exercise, it might be presentable, but otherwise it’s not. Other examples of this type of learning include having students write haikus to gain experience expressing Newtonian physics in their own words, or scientific illustration to encourage close observation.

When the art is integral to the presentation of science, such as the theatre and design aspects of conference-style presentations or scientific presentations to a general audience, student presentations can be greatly improved with the help of some outside resources (acting for science videos – https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/act-like-you-mean-it/, Edward Tufte’s books – http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/).

Aside from scientific presentations, I’m not so sure that I like the use of creative projects as a way to express science learning or communicate science when some of the students lack an arts/design background. The students with formal artistic training can produce really great things, pieces that show rigor from both a scientific and artistic perspective. Those who don’t have that background tend to create pieces that are weak in both fields, suggesting that the science hasn’t been learned or explored sufficiently. Perhaps that’s because the challenge of creating real art is too great and therefore distracting. Creative assignments for those students may do them a real disservice. They could have spent that effort building science skills instead.

Those are my musings for today. Let me know if you think I should change my mind!

 

Getting the Word Out

Here’s a link to a short article by the Engine Institute, Inc. that mentions my presentation at the New England Faculty Development Conference: http://theengineinstitute.org/moving-from-stem-to-steam

"Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4" by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) - Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Eupatorium_cannabinum_Sturm4.jpg.

“Eupatorium cannabinum Sturm4” by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) – Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen at http://www.biolib.de

I strongly encourage you to check out the work of the Engine Institute, which aims to foster cross-fertilization of art and science in some pretty innovative ways. Their Executive Director is the fabulous China Blue Wong (http://www.chinablueart.com). I hope to feature her here soon.

 

Art Science Movers and Shakers at an Arts University

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Whoa. Why did it take me so long to come across ArtSTEM?? ArtSTEM (http://www.artstem.org) is a project led by science faculty member, Dr. Janna Levin (http://www.uncsa.edu/academicprograms/faculty27.htm), and a history faculty member, Michael Wakeford (http://faculty.uncsa.edu/generalstudies/wakefordm/), at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (http://www.uncsa.edu). It’s alway a pleasure to find a STEAM-related project that is led by both a scientist and someone from the humanities. Without both of those perspectives in the leadership, sometimes the approach is too one-sided and the project’s efforts fail to effectively communicate clearly across disciplines.

ArtSTEM faculty projects involve arts high school and university students in a great variety of projects including plays about the process  of science, food science and food presentation, the intersection of anatomy & physiology with dance, the intersection of judo with physics, short films on science that use animation and puppetry, the art and technology of sound, the sonification of solar data, and the aesthetics of regulation in architecture.

ArtSTEM is even offering what looks like a very interesting course this coming semester. I encourage you to read the course description!  http://www.artstem.org/2013/04/22/artstem-course-planned-for-spring-2014/

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.

Virtual STEAM

The field of scientific visualization represents an authentic connection between the arts/design and the STEM disciplines.  Daniel Keefe (http://www-users.cs.umn.edu/~keefe/dfk_iweb/Home.html) and David Laidlaw (http://cs.brown.edu/~dhl/)  recently reported on what they’ve learned through the their teaching in the field of Virtual Reality (http://ivlab.cs.umn.edu/papers/Keefe-2013-VR-Design-for-STEAM.pdf). VR is advanced visualization technology that has broad appeal for undergraduates of all disciplines.

Stenger with VPL gear. Nicole Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality

Nicole Stenger with VPL gear. Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality.

The authors discovered that when art and STEM students worked together on Virtual Reality data visualization projects, they each began to develop some expertise in the other’s discipline. This exploration improved cross-disciplinary communication, facilitating the collaboration.

The authors incorporated important elements of art classes into their teaching. For one, they used a critique-style discussion of work-in-progress. Scientists knowledgeable about the data joined in. They found these classroom critiques so useful that they brought this teaching/learning technique into other computer science courses. (I could see how art-style classroom critique could be useful in other STEM courses as well.) Both groups of students faced the additional challenge of effective communication with the scientists whose research they were representing. In life-after-university, this third party could represent a client or additional collaborator.

They also emphasized the importance of “sketching” prior to programming. Sketching took various forms including paper & pencil, a series of concept sketches using Adobe Illustrator, acting out possible user experiences, short films, sculptures, and prototyping in the CavePainting virtual reality system. Data display environments help to align sketches with the reality of the data.

This paper causes me to reflect on my own teaching and on the importance of reflection for learning. It’s important to slow down, develop lots of ideas, get lots of feedback, and learn how to understand each other.

The paper described here was published in the refereed proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2013 which was held as part of the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

South Korean Leadership on STEAM

The Australian Council of Learned Academies, in an effort to build Australia’s STEM workforce and increase international competitiveness, recently commissioned reports on similar efforts in 24 countries, including the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea or Korea) (http://www.acola.org.au/index.php/stem-consultants-reports  – a great resource if you are asked to consider the future of STEM in your own region). This particular report (www.acola.org.au/ACOLA/PDF/SAF02Consultants/Consultant%20Report%20-%20Korea.pdf) was authored by Jae-Eun Jon, Korea University (http://www.korea.edu) and Hae-In Chung, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (http://www1.umn.edu/twincities/index.html).

Banpo Bridge with a rainbow fountain over the Han River in Seoul (Gu Gyobok)

Banpo Bridge with a rainbow fountain over the Han River in Seoul (Gu Gyobok)

Therein they describe the efforts of the Republic of Korea in the area of STEAM. While Korean students have excelled in math and science, and the country has a need for increased numbers of STEM-capable graduates, interest in the STEM disciplines is weak. To remedy this problem and foster creativity, beginning in August 2011 the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology restructured the entire Korean STEM curriculum around the idea of STEAM. The amount of math content was reduced by 20% to allow time for STEAM. There have been many opportunities for associated professional development, and two new STEAM schools for the gifted and talented crowd are scheduled to open by 2016. Additional schools have been selected at STEAM Leader Schools to pilot the full STEAM curriculum, and teacher study groups have been formed. Universities and Colleges of Education are expected to develop curricula that will train future teachers in STEAM and to carry out STEAM research.

The Random Walk and the Final Cause

A small team of researchers (Jill Fantauzzacoffin, Juan Rogers, and Jay Bolter)  based at Georgia Tech (http://www.gatech.edu) recently some completed interesting work that married an examination of STEAM processes with the development and teaching of an upper-level undergraduate/graduate course (http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6204164&queryText%3Dgeorgia).

The researchers examined the work of engineers and artists who were working to create similar technologies.  For both, innovation was born of problems and questions that the individual makers found compelling, and creativity was tied to subjectivity. The maker’s response to failure and uncertainty were significant with regard to the products of the work.

Chief green wall designers at Green over Grey - Living Walls and Design (Green Artist)

Chief green wall designers at Green over Grey – Living Walls and Design (Green Artist)

Engineers tended to use a teleological creative strategy that involved working toward a well-defined design goal. The work toward this goal begins with a body of accumulated knowledge and is tested against this knowledge throughout the process, minimizing uncertainty. Artists tended to take a “random walk”, a stochastic creative strategy, to explore a more general direction for exploration. They also work within constraints, but constraints that are in some ways less explicit. The artists were guided by an internal sense of authenticity. In comparison to the teleological approach of the engineers, the stochastic method resulted in wider exploration and the inclusion of more sociocultural concerns.

The project-based course served both art and engineering students in a studio setting where they could learn from both disciplines.  The class was small, just 13 students. Students worked through the design process three times with lots of support. They were told to follow ideas that they themselves found compelling, and they were allowed to fail, and were expected to work within both of the teleological and stochacistic creative strategies. Students made their process explicit, thereby becoming familiar with metacognition, a characteristic of expert learning.

When Jill led this work, she was a PhD candidate. I’d say that she’s one to watch.

Sing a Song of Science

Image

Cello Player (Amedeo Modigliani)

Scientists have a responsibility to share their findings with the general public in a clear and compelling way. STEM graduate and undergraduate students should be taught to communicate with both scientific and general audiences. Communication of pressing environmental concerns, including climate change, is especially important. Double-majors and students from other disciplines may contribute communication skills less common among scientists.

Music can be an accessible form of communication and speaks to human emotions. Daniel Crawford, an undergraduate at the University of Minnesotta (http://www1.umn.edu/twincities/index.html), was tasked by Prof. Scott St. George (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~stgeorge/Scott_St._George/Main.html) with translating global temperature data from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (http://www.giss.nasa.gov) into a cello piece. Crawford created this work as part of his internship in the Geography Department, demonstrating the importance of funding for undergraduate research experiences.

How about this for an assignment for your class? Each student must find creative way to express the same global temperature data. Hmm, maybe I’ll try that!

Click through for a story on the project and access to the score for A Song for Our Warming Planet: http://ensia.com/videos/a-song-of-our-warming-planet/

For Your Perusal

I’m excited to share with you an important addition to this blog – a bibliography constructed by Nancy Dennis, Science and Technology Librarian at Salem State University, and my collaborator in the research on the topic of STEAM. Nancy has collected and annotated a stimulating selection of articles on the topic of the intersection of the visual arts and the sciences, all with relevance to higher education. We’ll be adding to this bibliography over time, so be sure to check back occasionally. The bibliography can be found in the ‘Pages’ section: https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/science-visual-arts-bibliography/

Let me draw your attention to a couple of items of interest from the bibliography. First, please note this quote from a fascinating 1988 interview with Dr. Elliot Eisner, Professor Emeritus of Education and of Art.

Tattoo designed by Christian Cordova of Tattoo del Mono, Chile

Tattoo designed by Christian Cordova of Tattoo del Mono, Chile

“Learning in the arts is cognitively a very sophisticated operation. It requires the exercise of imagination. It requires the cultivation of human sensibility, the ability to pay attention to nuance, the ability to capitalize on the adventitious and on surprise in the course of working on a project or topic, the ability to know when to shift goals when working on something. It is the farthest thing from an algorithm. Much of the lack of development of critical thinking in American schools has been due to an emphasis on subject matter and on processes that do not cultivate human judgement and other forms of higher-level thinking.”

As scientists, we use most of the same elements of higher-level thinking in our own practice. In the same interview, Dr. Eisner voiced support for arts integration as long as it did not involve the sacrifice of formal art programs in schools.

Second, you may enjoy a 2012 article by Poli et al. that describes the use of topic of tattooing to explore world cultures, design, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, public health, medicine, physics, and engineering!