STEM to STEAM

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The Synergy of Discovery

02/07/2014

Sarina Mitchel 15 IL constructing an icosahedron model at Richard Esterle’s Amazing Geometry Machine workshop.

More than 350 scientists, engineers, students and educators ranging in age from 18 to 86 and from as far away as Poland converged on campus last weekend for STEM to STEAM thru Synergy, the fourth design science symposium RISD has hosted since 2007. Organized by Director of the Nature Lab Neal Overstrom in conjunction with the Synergetics Collaborative, Industrial Design Critic Amy Leidtke MID 95, Assistant Professor of Furniture Design Peter Dean 77 AR and other planning committee members, the goal of the gathering is to break down academic silos and show why it’s so important to incorporate art and design into the national dialogue emphasizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. “The design science symposium provides a forum for sharing knowledge between specialized disciplines, recognizing their inherent connections and increased strength when considered as a whole,” Leidtke explains.

“The artists, designers and scientists who gathered at RISD for this year’s symposium are inventing exciting new models of exchange and collaboration,” notes Interim President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, who introduced the day’s events on Saturday. “Together we’re rewriting the conditions of discovery and innovation, and creating the future.”

Later in the morning marine biologist and biomimicry expert Dayna Baumeister delivered the keynote address, speaking of the need for scientists and designers to put aside “human cleverness” and consult the natural world for elegant and sustainable design solutions. In order to impress upon participants the fleeting nature of human invention in the larger context of the cosmos, she compressed the earth’s 4.5 billion years into a single theoretical year. If the planet had been born on January 1, she explained, the first land organisms ­– fungi – would not have appeared until nearly 11 months later, on November 15. Flowers would have entered the scene on December 20 and human beings in the last 24 minutes of December 31. By comparison, the Industrial Revolution would have taken place a mere two seconds ago! 

Baumeister shared the brilliant work of designers who have embraced the notion of biomimicry, “consciously emulating nature’s genius” to solve a wide range of problems. Reflective fibers inspired by spider webs and all but invisible to the human eye are now being embedded into the windows of tall buildings to keep birds from crashing into them. The shingled structure surrounding the light-emitting organs in fireflies is being reproduced in design labs in order to increase the magnification of LED lighting. Nets made of air bubbles inspired by the fishing methods of humpback whales are cutting down on the bycatch of sea turtles and dolphins. “Life creates conditions conducive to life,” Baumeister concluded. “Designers should do the same.”   

Among the many other inspiring speakers at the three-day event were Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education; Thomas T. K. Zung, a former student of R. Buckminster Fuller and a principal of Studio Zung; and Eric Goetz, owner of the local boat building company Goetz Composites, who spoke about the recent commission to restore one of Buckminster Fuller’s most iconic structures, the Fly’s Eye Dome.

A series of workshops gave participants fascinating opportunities for hands-on exploration as well. Some chose to learn how to build a “floppy hub bamboo dome,” an alternative to the well-known geodesic dome, while others participated in a “geometric sculpture barn raising,” learned about Dynamic Polystring Transformahedra Modeling using a collection of strings and tubes to show symmetries in polyhedral assemblies or crocheted hyperbolic planes – to be used, in part, as “a wonderful antidote to math anxiety.”

Carl Fasano, a senior critic in Foundation Studies, teamed up with Sophia Sobers MFA 13 DM to curate Investigating the Lab: Relationships between Art, Design, and Science, an exhibition showcasing the wide range of ways art and design students engage with science. Symposium participants also enjoyed tours of both the Arthur Loeb Design Science Teaching Collection and the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, where the collection is housed. The Loeb Collection features hundreds of three-dimensional polyhedra and two-dimensional patterns that inspire students and faculty to examine nature's fundamental responses to design problems. With its collection of more than 80,000 natural history objects, books, visual resources, microscopes and digital workstations, the Nature Lab itself serves as an invaluable research facility for the RISD community.

In his presentation, Dennis Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium learning lab in San Francisco, underscored the importance of observing and learning from natural phenomena. He pointed out how closely the artistic process resembles the scientific process and echoed the sentiments of many of the symposium speakers in calling for a reconstructive (vs. deconstructive) scientific approach. Bartels also noted that he’s encouraged by the ever-growing maker movement in the US and by participatory arts gatherings like the celebratory Burning Man event in Nevada. And – as the campus master planners working to develop cross-disciplinary spaces at RISD have been asserting – he pointed out that successful collaboration has everything to do with place: “Physical spaces matter.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: academic collaborations, innovation, interdisciplinary, Industrial Design, research, STEAM

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.