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)

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Electric Firefly

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I first met the fabulous China Blue at the 2013 Darwin Festival (http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pkelly/darwin/). My colleague, Dr. Susan Case, organizes the festival and alerted me to the fact that this ground-breaking artist would be in attendance. She’d noted that China Blue’s work sits nicely at that intersection of art and science, where my own interests lie, and thought we might have something to discuss. It turned out that we did. A visit to her Firefly Grove installation at the John Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island, inspired our discussion below.

FF%20Tree%20China%20Blue-36SHLD: Hi China Blue! That was a great visit we had – great food, amazing dinner conversation, and then a visit to your public art exhibit, Firefly Grove. You’ve written that this piece addresses public concern about the loss of fireflies, but there are so many threatened and endangered species. As a conservation biologist with an interest in the process of setting conservation priorities I wonder – why have fireflies in particular been a focus of your efforts?

 CB: Fireflies have captivated me when I first discovered them on a visit to Italy, many years ago. I did not know they existed until then because their range sadly does not include California, where I come from. About five years ago I was experimenting with electronics, you would not think of electronics and fireflies together but one of the first exercises is to turn on and off an LED. As a sculptor I thought that was very dull and the idea of an LED turning on and off inspired the thought of making an electronic firefly. That lead to a series expanded from one to the field that you saw.

There are many interesting things about fireflies. In addition to providing us with nostalgic memories of childhood experiences collecting them, they are also bioindicators of a loss of habitat and diversity. Additionally they produce chemicals that create their nighttime illumination. One these chemicals is Luciferin. This is a chemical that is now used as a research tool to track cancer cells in the body and illuminate neuronal pathways in the brain.

 LD: I grew up with fireflies in my backyard, and I miss them. So, I’m glad they’re a focus of your work! And why were you experimenting with electronics?

 CB: My experimentation with electronics evolved out of my development of sound art works. When that began about 20 years ago, I wanted the work to be small, self-contained and without the usage of a computer or large speaker and amplifier systems which were the mode at the time. So, I taught myself how to burn sound files onto EPROM chips to loop the files. I then created small speaker systems for the work I built so I could camouflage the hardware. Finally, I attached movement sensors that would turn the audio on when people walking by. Operating in this way enabled me to create work that could then be played self-sustained in galleries over a sustained periods of time.

As time went by I realized that learning how to build circuits would be helpful to me in developing new work so that is how I ended up experimenting with electronics. 

 LD:  So, did your work with electronics change the way you thought about the biology? Or did the biology affect the way you understood or approached your art?

 CB: It was a bit of both. I did not have a strong education in science because my degrees are in art, so considering science as a topic for my work has been a slow but organic process. Through my work making the Firefly 2.0 etc., I developed an interest in biomimicry and how it can effect and influence technological changes in our world. It’s influences are wide ranging from impacting the creation of robotic gate to velcro tape (inspired by burrs) to self healing materials. And by studying fireflies and bioluminescence I was inspired to approach my work from a vantage point that I never thought of before and one that I find has both meaning while illuminating the human condition and our impact on nature.

FF_Grove_Web LD: China Blue, this sounds like cutting edge work from lots of interesting angles. I could imagine that it might appeal to undergrads looking for an internship or work-study. Do you ever take on assistants, and if so, what type of work do/would you have them do?

CB: Yes, I often work with interns and assistants. The work I assign is based on a their strengths. One assistant I am currently working with is designing new software for various projects I am working on. His strengths are in knowing a variety of computer languages (MAX/MSP, Ableton Live, Open GL and Java script) and a familiarity with Arduinos and physical computing. Another assistant I had was helpful with running the magazine for my non-profit, The Engine Institute (http://theengineinstitute.org) which requires an interest in art journalism and knowledge of WordPress, MS Word, photoshop and some d-base work. I have also worked with sculptors using new technologies and people familiar with 3d printing.

Photinus%20Biomimeticus%2072Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little interview, and that it may inspire you to combine art and science in your work. In the process I learned that her work includes not only Animal Behavior, Conservation Biology, electronics, sound engineering, and robots, sculpture and sound art, but also dance! Check out these videos to see and hear her work with Lance Massey and the Providence Ballet Theater (http://www.providenceballet.org/providenceballettheatre.htm  ): http://theengineinstitute.org/events. And maybe you can send China Blue some great candidates for an internship!

Communicable Biology

Once a year or so, I have a biology student who’s a great photographer or illustrator. We talk about scientific photography or scientific illustration as a career path, but I haven’t been able to offer much beyond that. Well, now I can. A colleague just turned me on to this organization, the BioCommunications Association (http://www.bca.org/about/about.html).

From their website:

A typical BCA member is a dedicated, passionate, creative and technical biological/medical photographer, graphic designer, illustrator or videographer employed by hospitals, medical facilities, colleges, universities and research institutions in the life sciences and health care industry.

They offer an education grant: The fund has awarded grants to applicants from several countries for a wide variety of projects such as preparation for certification, attendance at workshops, photographic exhibit support, and the development of new imaging techniques for the microscope. Awards are limited to no more than 33% of available funds for the year and are typically $500 or less. and Any student, trainee, biocommunicator, or institutional program that can demonstrate a need for project funding may apply. So, it’s only $500, but its something.

They also offer a scholarship to support educational opportunities for full-time undergraduate or graduate student pursuing a career in scientific/biomedical visual communications, at an accredited school.

Additionally, they run an annual BioImages competition. Check out their amazing winners gallery here: http://www.bca.org/gallery/bioimages2014salon.html. Be sure to scroll down for the videos!

Last but not least, check out their nicely curated list of links. They include links to academic programs, inspirations and stock images. Maybe I’ll be inspired to branch out from WikiMedia Images.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A bacteria that causes infections and is one that is resistant to many antibiotics.

 

 

Serious Space Games

Mrs. Muriel Riester, Librarian at the International Space University (http://www.isunet.edu)  has assembled an interesting list of space-related scientific Serious Games (http://isulibrary.isunet.edu/opac/doc_num.php?explnum_id=616). Video games integrate technology, the visual arts, design, and story-telling, and can center on STEM content. Students can learn about STEM disciplines through playing these games, and can learn even more by developing them!

Screenshot from the open-source space simulator Vegastrike.

Screenshot from the open-source space simulator Vegastrike.

The Art Museum as Collaborator

Have you considered going outside of your own academic institution to find an artistic collaborator? A STEM faculty member may be greeted with quite a lot of interest by an arts institution.

Many art museums, for example, display art that involves STEM in its creation or as it subject. Consider the chemistry in painting, math in fashion design, or computer science in augmented reality art.  And then there are botanical prints, art derived from mathematical patterns,  and landscapes that show changes in land-use over time, just to name a few. However, the museum may not have much contact with scientists, mathematicians, or engineers who could provide a different perspective on the work or connect with the visitors through scientific and mathematical ideas.

"Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands: no3," by John Craig Freeman, augmented reality public art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.

“Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands: no3,” by John Craig Freeman, augmented reality public art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.

Education is an important part of the mission of museums, as is collaboration with educational institutions. You may find museum staff members to be intrigued by the idea of collaboration with higher ed instead of K-12 for a change. They may even be interested in leading a workshop for your colleagues to take place at the museum or at your university.

An art museum may be interested in participating in the dialog around STEM education that takes place at academic meetings, but may be seen as out of place at a scientific or faculty professional development conference.  A collaboration with a STEM faculty member may help others to recognize the legitimacy of a museum’s voice in these settings.

And don’t forget that art and art/science museums can be great resources for your STEM classes. At a museum a student can improve his or her ability to observe details, interpret artwork in the context of conservation biology, or learn about the science of making art.

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.

OpenLab Network

The OpenLab project (http://openlabresearch.com/about) at the University of California Santa Cruz is led by Jennifer Parker, an associate professor of Art + Digital Arts New Media and Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an associate professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (http://www.nsf.gov) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (http://www.nasa.gov/), among others. OpenLab has been around for about two years.

Collaborators include organizations with related goals within and outside of the University of California system, working artists, scientists, environmental activists, M.D.s, graduate students, and most likely a few undergraduates as well. Projects range from an interactive sculpture/research on the topic of mass transfer in binary stars, to videos/research on the environmental impacts of latex balloons, to an iPad app for virtual group therapy for families with babies in intensive care (http://openlabresearch.com/archives/2774), to name a few.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

To give you an idea of the types of work possible through this program, the facilities used by the OpenLab Network include a foundry, a metal fabrication shop, a digital imaging lab, photo and print studios, wood shop, and a supercomputer lab for undergraduates, affectionately referred to as the SLUG. The performing arts also play a role.

Perhaps the important aspect of this project, one that sets it apart from many other science + art initiatives, is that the directors state a research purpose:

“Within this immersive environment, we will conduct research to acquire skills and knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries between science, education, and the arts while sharing expertise in collaborative research methodologies.

The following research questions will be investigated:

(1) How can we strengthen or create new methodologies that truly engage art and science thinking?

(2) Is an interdisciplinary laboratory space for cross-disciplinary and collaborative research more engaging and productive for students and faculty without these resources?

We should all keep an eye out for the answers.

Maker Faire as a Venue for Student Work

Maker Faires showcase D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) work often with a technology slant. Makers present work that ranges from Arduino projects (http://www.instructables.com/id/Arduino-Projects/) to 3-D printers to biotech projects to textile arts to robots, and the faires take place around the world.

The World Maker Faire (http://makerfaire.com) will be at the New York Hall of Science (http://www.nysci.org) in Queens, NY, this September. The Call for Entries (http://makerfaire.com/newyork-2013-call-for-makers/) closes July 28. Interestingly, student projects top the list of the type of topics they’d like to see included.

For folks in the Boston area, there will be a Mini Maker Faire in Somerville, Massachusetts in October.

Clothing created by a 3D Printer

Clothing created by a 3D Printer

Dunk Tank Flambé

Ferris Wheel at Night (Tfioreze)

Ferris Wheel at Night

Okay, computer science  and engineering professors. Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman of Two Bit Circus have proposed a Carnival of the Future with robots, a dunk tank flambé, a laser maze, a ring toss with ignition, even a motion-capture mechanical bull. The development and making of these high tech games require computer science, art and design, engineering, and math. Then the community gets to learn about STEM through interaction with the games. Check out the work of Two Bit Circus at: http://twobitcircus.com

Is their form of artisanal engineering adaptable to the undergraduate or graduate classroom?

If you’d like to support their vision, and I encourage you to do so, visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/twobitcircus/steam-carnival-0