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Artists Seeking Science


For an assignment on pollution and waste in the course The Art of Communicating Science, Angela Hseih 12 GD spun a giant web made from 150 plastic bags cut and wound into strips. Hseih collected the bags from the third floor of her dorm in a few days.

As an institution, RISD has been leading the way in advocating for art and design as integral to – not separate from – science and innovation, with major recent initiatives like STEM to STEAM and the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR grant.

What is less well known is that individually, RISD students have been following the same impulse as well. For years they have turned to cross-registration opportunities at Brown to pursue their interests in science. But now that RISD’s Division of Liberal Arts has significantly expanded its offerings in this area, students are lining up for a growing and uniquely design-oriented RISD science curriculum. In the process, they’re exploring topics ranging from insect morphology to physics to cognitive neuroscience.

The new, interdisciplinary curriculum, administered by the department of History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences (HPSS), is now in its second year and offers a dozen courses, including this semester’s Evolutionary Biology and Investigating the Botanical World. The hope, says HPSS Department Head Daniel Cavicchi, is to expand the offerings so that a wide range of courses in the physical and natural sciences will rotate in and out of the curriculum.

“Students have really flocked to these courses. They’re yearning for science,” says Cavicchi. “And while some have been going to Brown to do that, what is different about RISD is that these science courses are looking at the intersection of art and science, and what these two realms can lend each other.”

Before the curriculum was developed, HPSS had been teaching a handful of science courses on an ad hoc basis. Now, Cavicchi says, the push is on to make science courses integral to the liberal arts component of a RISD education. “We're really making a commitment to the study of science, recognizing it as a force in art and design education.”

Accomplishing that goal has meant deepening partnerships with existing resources like the Nature Lab, developing courses that allow for hands-on experimentation and observation without the daunting time commitment of traditional science lab work and establishing new collaborations with scientists like Lucy Spelman, a biologist and veterinarian who specializes in zoological medicine.

So far Spelman has taught three science courses, including the Kyobo grant-funded course The Art of Communicating Science, which she co-taught with Illustration Assistant Professor Susan Doyle 81 IL/MFA 98 PT/PR last fall.

“Most of the science outreach that is designed to improve science literacy among the general public is largely science education,” Spelman says. “But it could be so much more. Artists and designers can have a huge impact by participating in how we communicate science because they have the skills to reach out to people in other ways – to make science fun, debatable, interesting and emotional. This is why I am so enthusiastic about teaching at RISD. There is so much potential.”

related links:
Seeing Science:NSF Backs RISD Research
RISD’s EPSCoR initiative
more RISD STEAM stories

tags: academic collaborations, interdisciplinary, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, STEAM, sustainability

A figure modeling class from 1916.