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)

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!

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.

Origami Origami

Origami authentically merges art and design with mathematical theory, algorithms, and technology. Math is central to learning in STEM, and is a language shared by STEM, art and design (http://cjvrose.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/stem-to-steam-report.pdf).

Origami artist Dr. Robert J. Lang of Alamo, California, also a physicist and engineer with expertise in R&D, has written and spoken extensively on these ideas (http://www.langorigami.com/science/science.php). Paper folding artist Michael LaFosse of Origamido Studio (http://origamido.com) in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a biologist by training and uses organisms as subjects for his art.

There are even conferences about this type of work. The Sixth International Conference on Origami in Science, Mathematics, and Education (6OSME) (http://www.origami.gr.jp/6osme/) will take place at lovely Yayoi Auditorium on the Hongo campus of The University of Tokyo (http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/) in August 2014. The conference is currently taking submissions from “art, design, mathematics, science, computer science, engineering, liberal arts, history, education, and other fields and their intersections.” 

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper folding is something that interests undergraduates, as evidenced by the origami club at MIT, OrigaMIT (http://origamit.scripts.mit.edu/index.php), so it may suggest a new type of active learning for incorporation into university courses, especially those in math and engineering.

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.

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