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!

 

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/

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!

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/)

With the Greatest of Ease!

Flying Trapeze (Courtesy of Fearless Flyers Academy)

Flying Trapeze (Courtesy of Fearless Flyers Academy)

So, today I got up my nerve. After many months of encouragement from a friend, I flew. On the flying trapeze. In just one lesson they taught me to hang from my knees twenty-five feet in the air. I was even caught twice by the remarkable Rob Borroughs, who can apparently catch a novice no matter how many crazy things she does. I offer gratitude to Owner/Head Coach Don Dinh (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer) who patiently guided me through the steps of the tricks, and to Head Coach Lam Dinh (Computer Science) who encouraged me and held my belt as I leaned off the platform to grasp ahold of that swing that seemed to be so far out into the blue.

But, of course, the whole time I was really thinking about STEAM. As the Owner/Head Coach Ally Dihn of the Fearless Flyers Academy (http://www.fearlessflyersacademy.com) said to me today, “The trapeze is all physics.”

In fact, Alastair Pilgrim of Red Hands Flying Trapeze (http://www.red-hands.co.uk) has written a nice piece entitled, The Physics of Flying Trapeze (http://www.flying-trapeze.com/The-Physics-of-Flying-Trapeze/). He talks about kinetic and potential energy, calculating maximum speed, and time period of the swing. And that’s just the first chapter.

So, physics professors, check out a flying school near you. Fearless Flyers Academy is in Salem, Massachusetts for just eight more days this season – but also due back next August.  There are flying academies all over the world.  Find one in your neighborhood and expose your students to the exciting world of physics through trapeze!

Oh, Isabella!

Actor, model, writer, filmmaker, student of biology, and conservation activist Isabella Rossellini (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000618/?ref_=sr_1) has taken an approach to science communication that can be adapted to the university classroom. In collaboration with artists and filmmakers Robert Redford (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000602/), Rick Gilbert (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0318215/), Andy Byers (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2974412/), and Jody Shapiro (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0788539/), as well as with scientists John Bohannon*  (http://www.johnbohannon.org) and Claudio Campagna (http://rinconchico.com.ar/scientific-activities/) , she created many shorts and as well as one longer film on topics in animal behavior and evolution.

Her body of shorts called Green P**** (viewable at http://preview.tinyurl.com/mq7rhy4) is made up three series: Green P**** on the mating habits of insects and marine animals (including Bon Appetit – three shorts on conservation issues), Seduce Me on seduction in the animal kingdom, and Mamma, just released this May, on motherhood in the animal kingdom.  Shorts were screened at the Natural History Museum (UK) (http://www.nhm.ac.uk), the work was honored by the Audubon Society (http://www.audubon.org), and Ms. Rossellini has spoken at several universities about her process. Oh, and I should say that she stars in the title role of each short.

two 0.28 inch (7 mm) small flies of the family Anthomyiidae (André Karwath)

Two 0.28 inch (7 mm) small flies of the family Anthomyiidae (André Karwath)

These films are offbeat, hilarious, disgusting, informative, highly memorable. What could be more appropriate for teaching undergraduates? I would bet that if you have your students act out complex animal behaviors, mating or otherwise, they won’t forget what they learned in the process!

Animals Distract Me (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1839406/), a film whose scientific focus is on evolution and animal behavior was developed through Ms. Rossellin’s own curousity about the animal world. Featuring the actor herself as Darwin, it was shown at the 2012 Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartegena de Indias (http://ficcifestival.com) in Colombia last year.

* John Bohannon was featured in an earlier post (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/category/dance/).

**** Yep, folks were starting to find this site through inappropriate searches, so I had to get rid of some letters and use a tiny url link!

Act Like You Mean It

If you think some professors can be stiff in front of a classroom, you should see their students!  Many university STEM courses require students to give presentations. Few seniors can present well, and some students even leave graduate school with lousy presentation skills, hence professors who give uninspiring and even off-putting lectures. There’s considerable overlap between presentation skills and acting skills. Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre, has given some wonderful workshops on Teaching as Performance through the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning of Harvard University. The first two videos in this Boc Center series (http://tinyurl.com/dxqxhv8) feature Ms. Houfek’s workshops. The videos were designed for professors, but when your STEM students present they become teachers, so these videos would be appropriate to share with them as well.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through a process called sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through the process of sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

The topics addressed include:

  • Teacher/Presenter/Actor preparation
  • Landing your energy
  • Audience engagement
  • Addressing stage fright
  • The use of breath
  • Taking pleasure in words, even technical ones
  • The use of metaphors to address different learning styles
  • Waking up the body
  • Opening up the voice

There’s even an illustrated guide to the workshop exercises that could be adapted for your STEM classroom: http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic650252.files/actguide.pdf Break a leg.