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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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.

 

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!

Me too!

The idea of STEAM has broad appeal.  So broad, in fact, that lots of other disciplines seem to want in too.

Check out this list of acronyms.  Why does the field of education have so many acronyms?!

STREAM brings in Language Arts in form of  “wRiting” or Reading (http://smartregion.org/2011/04/from-stem-to-stream/http://www.journal-advocate.com/ci_23625741/stem-at-center-stem-steam-and-streamhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/imagine/201103/stem-steam-stream-writing-essential-component-science-education). But weren’t reading and writing essential components of the practice of science anyway? Perhaps they aren’t always included in K12 STEM, but they certainly should be.

Then there’s ST2REAM.  ST2REAM includes reading/language arts again, plus thematic instruction (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/10/24/09wesson.h32.html). I kind of like the idea of thematic instruction, but I’m concerned that if we add any more angles the science will get diluted. Thematic courses may be a good fit for Interdisciplinary Studies departments.

STEAMIE incorporates “Include Everyone” (http://www.iste.org/store/product?ID=2119). Inclusion is good.

STEMM specifies medicine (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/05/20/tips-for-hiring-stemm-talent-into-government/). Lots of K12 school districts across the United States have STEMM programs, and the federal government seems to be using this term in some cases.

In STEMSS the second (or first?) S stands for Social Studies (http://www.uwlax.edu/conted/stem/stemssprograms.html). Did you know that there’s a society for the social studies of science? http://www.4sonline.org  Interesting stuff, and a somewhat novel combination of disciplines.

Let’s not forget STEAM where A=Architecture (http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/ready_setwait_stem_or_is_it_steam) or SEA,  which now stands for Science, Economics, and Arts (http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrydoss/2013/09/17/the-innovation-curriculum-stem-steam-or-sea/).

I’ve also seen STEAME where the E stand for Entertainment, but for the life of me I can’t find a reference for it.

The Genius Of Architecture Rewarding At Once The Science And The Practice Of The Art by William Brodie, located in the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh

The Genius Of Architecture Rewarding At Once The Science And The Practice Of The Art by William Brodie, located in the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh (Stefan Schäfer, Lich)

This variety of attempts to join other disciplines with STEM reflects a genuine interest in the zeitgeist in the re-integration of knowledge. I suspect that it also reflects the fact that research funds are extremely tight all over –  if funding isn’t available in your own discipline, maybe you can find it in someone else’s!

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!