An experimental spring studio sheds light on changing ecosystems by focusing on migrating marine duck species that winter in Rhode Island.
Liz Holland’s installation FLIGHT ROPE connects land and sea near the Cliff Walk in Newport, RI, building public awareness of migratory marine ducks.
How do ducks see their natural environment? How do they hear and touch the world? And how do these interactions signal changes in ecological health and balance?
Students in The Art and Science of Ecocentric Practices, a studio supported by a National Science Foundation grant from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), spent spring semester exploring these questions. At their final crit in late May, they presented personal explorations of related themes to Digital + Media Critic Brian House and Foundation Studies Critic Bryan Quinn, who co-taught the course, along with a panel of guest critics: Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom, URI conservationist Peter Paton and biologist Jameson Chace.
“After observing the ducks in their natural environment for this class,” notes Industrial Design graduate student Liz Holland MID 15, “I started seeing marine ducks everywhere.” Tibetan prayer flags inspired a temporary installation she calls Flight Rope – a cable (pictured above) that captures the colors of duck feathers and the landscape, connecting land and sea near the popular Cliff Walk in Newport, RI. “It’s a great example of how to create interventions that make people notice things – catalysts that encourage public engagement,” Overstrom observes.
For his final project, Architecture graduate student Nick Cote MArch 15 used the software program Rhino and the programming language Python to mathematically model duck behavior in the wild. To predict long- and short-term movement patterns among marine ducks, he constructed a framework based on such variables as feeding habits, the size of groups studied and water depth.
Migratory patterns are important, says Quinn, because the species that winter in coastal Rhode Island each year are traveling from as far away as northern Canada. And the fact that marine ducks inhabit multiple ecosystems means that they are susceptible to a variety of human-related threats that have likely led to recent drastic population declines in many species. “Understanding one small part of the ecosystem sheds light on the whole system,” Quinn points out.
Graduating senior Kendall Gremillion 14 ID also used Rhino to create her final project, which focused on underwater duck feeding behaviors and getting the next generation interested in studying marine ducks. Her design for a child-friendly exhibit allows users to don rubber gloves shaped to simulate duck beaks and retrieve different kinds of duck prey from translucent bowls of water.
“This exhibit is intended to teach children 5–9 years old about the three methods used by diving ducks to reach specific types of prey at different depths,” Gremillion writes in her final report. “Diving ducks use their beaks to reach mussels close to the surface, their wings to reach fish and their feet to reach plant matter at the deepest point of the intertidal zone.”
“The transparent bowls are really fun,” notes Overstrom, “and kids love to play with water. The keys to successful exhibits are color, motion and interactivity.” Visiting critic Paton also appreciates Gremillion’s project and believes that the design of the gloves is the key to its success. He envisions a version of the exhibit that would feature multiple gloves designed to simulate the variety of beak structures in different duck species.
Other students in the class presented final projects on oyster farming, trans-continental bird flyways and educational toys that teach children about North American duck species. The thread that connects all of the work is building environmental awareness and concern, especially among young people who will be dealing with these issues throughout their lifetimes.
“With global climate change, it is an important moment for us to realize that our relationship to the environment and to other species cannot be bracketed by an understanding of the natural world as separate and other,” says House. “We need to employ not only scientific thinking but also artistic thinking to cultivate a culture that makes the most of its interdependence with animals and with ecological systems.”
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