Stimulating STEAM Symposium

Stimulating STEAM Symposium

In a study of Stanford University’s Windhover Contemplative Center, environmental consultant Bill Browning notes that the light bounces off vertical louvers onto wood flooring and matching benches.

In today’s world, humans spend more than 90% of their days indoors, even though “research tells us that just looking at greenery for 40 seconds lowers stress levels and increases attention and productivity,” says environmental consultant Bill Browning. “Biophilic design brings the qualities of nature—along with some of their physiological benefits—into the built environment.”

As the opening speaker at STEAM Intelligence, the fifth iteration of the biennial Design Science Symposium at RISD, Browning was eager to share his findings and discuss a wide range of projects he’s led that “bridge the natural and built environments.” Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom, Senior Critic in ID Amy Leidtke MID 95 and Assistant Professor of Furniture Design Peter Dean BArch 77 worked with a committee of STEAM-centric educators (who emphasize the importance of integrating art into the study of science, technology, engineering and math) to organize this year’s event, which took place from April 15–17 and drew people from around the globe who work at the intersection of science and design.

"The act of drawing is significant to the process of discovery. Before the invention of the camera, scientists were compelled to draw what they saw."
Rebecca Kamen MFA 78 SC

RISD alumna Rebecca Kamen MFA 78 SC, another keynote speaker, has drawn inspiration from the natural world her entire life. “I’ve always learned by observing patterns in nature,” the sculptor explains, describing them as “a bridge that connects art and science.” In one recent project, she reimagined the periodic table of elements as a collection of mylar sculptural forms, and in another she proposed a bridge between astrophysics and neuroscience by finding similar structures in the cosmos and the human brain. “The act of drawing these forms is significant to the process of discovery,” she notes. “Before the invention of the camera, scientists were compelled to draw what they saw.”

Above: Rebecca Kamen, Portal (2014)

Among the key presenters who brought their passion and individual areas of expertise to the weekend were space researcher and architecture professor Haresh Lalvani, internationally recognized urban theorist Nikos A. Sailngaros and green chemist John Warner. Participants learned from each other through hands-on workshops and posed questions and proposed ideas during roundtable discussions.

Alumni Matt Muller 14 FD and August Lehrecke 14 FD of the Pneuhaus design collective presented a popular workshop called Soft Packing, inviting participants to use principles of masonry and pneumatics to create a large, outdoor inflatable sculpture. Other STEAM-y workshops focused on everything from containing oil spills using unexpected technology to creating natural dyes using fruits and vegetables to developing spatial reasoning in young children via 3D “manipulative.”

In her introductory remarks, Rhode Island Department of Education’s Science & Technology Specialist Simone Palmer referenced a late 20th-century study by George Land that measured creativity in school-age children and found that it dropped dramatically between the ages of 5 and 10. She encouraged educators at the symposium to heed the results of such studies, “give students the freedom to explore what interests them” and avoid pigeonholing kids as good at science or art, for instance, but not both.

As the pervading mindset throughout the weekend made clear, the days of pigeonholing are over. Instead, both the symposium speakers and those who came to campus to share in the discussion are driven by an open-minded, cross-disciplinary sense of discovery and new possibilities. As several presenters emphasized, exercising both sides of the brain allows us all to make connections—and solve problems—that might otherwise elude us.


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