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Nature Lab Wins NSF Support

Nature Lab Wins NSF Support

Funding from a $280,000 EAGER grant will enable RISD to develop a maker space and K–12 curriculum focused on bio-design and its relationship to real-world problems.

Thanks to a generous EAGER grant from the NSF, the Nature Lab will extend the vision that started in 1937 with a core collection of specimens for exploring design in nature.

The RISD Nature Lab has won $280,000 in support from the National Science Foundation EAGER (EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) program to help develop a new bio-design maker space in the Waterman Building. The space will provide an immersive environment for students to engage in hands-on design projects that cultivate a working knowledge of biology and natural systems. The timing is perfect, notes Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom, since the lab will celebrate its 80th anniversary during the 2017/18 academic year.

Led by the lab’s Biological Programs Designer Jennifer Bissonnette and supported by co-principal investigators Paul Sproll—head of RISD’s Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) department—and Associate Professor of Interior Architecture Eduardo Duarte, the project will not only provide additional nature-rich spaces in which students can work but also find an avenue for both RISD and K–12 students to engage with the biological sciences beyond the traditional STEM curriculum.

“Ultimately, we are trying to prototype a space with biophilic elements as a cornerstone of design and the study of design,” Overstrom notes. As Bissonnette explains, biophilia is a recently coined term that refers to “our natural affinity for life and lifelike processes around which we evolved as a species.” Think of the hardwired and cross-cultural fears humans have of heights and snakes, for example, which evolved to protect us from harm—or our shared attraction to plants and water.

Biological Programs Designer Jennifer Bissonette
“Our goal is to allow students from a wide variety of disciplines to get involved in evaluating and prototyping biophilic design concepts.”co-principal jennifer bissonnette

Regardless of whether their primary interests lie in visual or performing arts, science or math, literature or history, “every student should have a fundamental understanding of living systems,” Overstrom says. “We envision a studio lab where students can explore biology, art and design and pilot human-scale biotechnologies to address social and environmental issues such as air and water pollution.”

The project to create a new maker space begins this summer with the installation of a green wall in the Nature Lab and continues during Wintersession 2018 with an interdisciplinary studio co-led by Overstrom and Bissonnette. “Our goal is to allow students from a wide variety of disciplines to get involved in evaluating and prototyping biophilic design concepts,” Bissonnette notes.

Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom
“We envision a studio lab where students can...pilot human-scale biotechnologies to address social and environmental issues such as air and water pollution.”nature lab director neal overstrom

Students in a spring 2018 studio course offered through Interior Architecture will then move the best ideas generated during Wintersession from concept to detailed, construction-ready designs, producing a series of prototypes in collaboration with the team at Co-Works, RISD’s interdisciplinary fabrication lab. The two studio courses will be followed by a 10-week build session in summer 2018 that will involve undergraduate and graduate students along with staff members from RISD Facilities and independent contractors.

Once the physical space is complete, Sproll will lead graduate-level TLAD students in using the lab to develop K–12 curricula focused on bio-design and its relationship to real-world problems. For example, they might develop an eco approach to food security and pollution by using aquaponics, a system in which “protein and vegetables are grown concurrently” and fish waste is treated with bacteria and then used as fertilizer, Bissonnette explains.

Students work with marine life at the Nature Lab.

Throughout the project, research associate Melita Morales MA 14—a graduate of RISD’s TLAD program—will document and assess progress. She’ll work with project investigators to develop measurement tools that can be used in Year 2 of the project to assess the growth of participating K–12 students, and all of the data will be published and shared with other schools hoping to create their own bio-design spaces in future.

“RISD is in a unique position to develop new approaches to bringing biophilic elements into work spaces,” says Overstrom. “We see the bio-design maker lab as a prototype and hope to leverage this NSF funding to inform proposals for a larger facility that creatively supports the study of living systems and promotes new approaches to art and design in line with sustainability and health. All of this is a natural extension of a vision that started in 1937 with a core collection of specimens to allow RISD students to learn from design in nature.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Matthew Clowney MFA 08 PH + Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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