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STEAM Club Mixes Art and Science

06/04/2012

During a workshop at MIT, members of the RISD STEAM club learned to work with paper-based electronics.

Last fall RISD STEAM began at the student club fair with just a table, a poster and a promise to expose students to entirely new ideas. Sarah Pease 13 FD, founder and current leader of the club, sat in her folding chair and explained STEM to STEAM to curious students, letting them know that it’s a RISD-led initiative advocate for adding art and design thinking to the current federal emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and research (STEM + Art = STEAM).

While President John Maeda is a strong natural advocate for STEAM, “students see science and math and they run away,” says Pease. So she started RISD STEAM as an attempt to change that. “The club allows students to engage with the policy in a way that’s more relatable to what we’re doing here in classes,” she explains. It lets them actually understand and apply the principles of STEAM in their own work.

Pease has set two main goals for the club: to expose RISD students to technology and to encourage collaboration in disciplines beyond art and design. Over Wintersession RISD STEAM accomplished both of these goals by taking part in a series of workshops linking RISD and the MIT Media Lab.

The workshops, led by MIT graduate student Jie Qui as part of her master’s thesis work focusing on the use of technology in creating expressive art, introduced students at both colleges to paper-based electronics and encouraged them to explore the technology through personal projects. Jie Qui taught them about LEDs and switches, microcontrollers, liquid crystal paint and shape memory metal while encouraging them to explore the media and take it in whatever direction they wanted.

In the end, the distinct similarities between the MIT and RISD creations surprised both teacher and students alike. “There wasn’t really a dividing line between what they did and we did,” says RISD STEAM member Connor Lynch 15 ID. “You couldn’t see who did what. We were all finding ways to take this technology and create something a little less sterile and a little more familiar with it.” Workshop students said that to them, paper-based electronics felt totally new, exciting and full of opportunities to expand. “They can do magic,” Lynch says.

The magic that comes from mixing art and science is the driving force behind STEAM. A growing number of people are inspired by that idea, which is actually a return to the way Leonardo da Vinci approached these disciplines during the Renaissance. This week RISD STEAM is helping to connect more of those people by hosting a CreativeMornings “pop-up” event at RISD, as part of an international conversation in June based on the intersection of arts and technology.

CreativeMornings hopes its June conversations will further the STEAM movement by helping people to “recognize the magic that bubbles up when the arts and tech intersect.” That’s really the goal of the RISD STEAM club, too, says Pease. “We’re trying to bring together different perspectives and push the potential.”

—Samantha Dempsey 13 IL

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tags: academic collaborations, technology, digital, innovation, interdisciplinary, partnerships + collaborations, STEAM, students

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At RISD there's nothing unusual about suddenly finding a doorknob on a tree trunk, shown here across from Carr House,
the charming home of Student Life offices and the student-run Carr Haus Café.