Renewed Focus > New Perspective
Assistant Professor Sean Salstrom encourages students to make discoveries within—and beyond—the constraints of remote learning.
Experimenting at home, Amanda Lee MFA 21 GL observed the optical behavior of isomalt, a beet-derived sweetener that can be used as a material substitute for glass.
When RISD transitioned to remote learning this spring, Assistant Professor Sean Salstrom MFA 06 GL drew from his own experiences as a grad student in Glass to help guide him in adapting the three courses he taught this spring.
“Grad school at RISD prepared me to [develop] situational awareness of changing landscapes in everyday life—and studio life especially,” says Salstrom, who joined the full-time faculty last fall. In expeditiously modifying two undergraduate studios and an interdisciplinary, grad-level course called Experiments in Optics, he responded similarly to how he would after a difficult studio crit: by processing it as objectively as possible before “getting [back] to work with a renewed focus.”
Though none of the courses Salstrom taught this spring emphasized technical aspects of making per se, he still understood that students would be unable to work with materials at home as they do in studio. Furthermore, given its specific focus on interactions between digital technologies and analog optical devices, Experiments in Optics required different interventions than the sophomore- and junior-level studios that explore creative practice more broadly.
So Salstrom encouraged undergraduate students to delve deep into research, conceptual thinking, professional development and other aspects of creative practice that happen before and beyond studio making. Participants shared ideas and research findings via a user-friendly website that served as both a community hub and collaborative archive. “The site helped to showcase what students accomplished [remotely],” Salstrom says, “and feed each other’s curiosity for further inquiry.”
Equally important was facing the inescapable fact that all of this—the pandemic, its impact on home and loved ones, the abrupt changes to how students learn together—is hard to handle all at once.
“I want to be part of a support structure as well as a studio instructor,” says Salstrom, who began each class by checking in with students about the global situation and how it has been affecting them—a practice he plans to continue in some form once classes can be held in person again.
To help students in Experiments with Optics establish remote studio spaces in far-flung places, each received a kit of supplies that included a telescope with smartphone adapter, a high-end laser pointer with attachments for projecting light patterns and a prism and spherical lens kit. Though limited relative to the resources available on campus, this simple set of tools allowed participants to make surprising discoveries.
In several cases, these discoveries reflected how students responded to isolation. Yuqing Ma MID 21, for instance, used simple reflective materials to create an interactive optical environment in her bedroom—in an effort to breathe life into a space that felt increasingly confining by day. As the Industrial Design major recorded the results, she considered how making a window with similar materials could activate any space and make it feel “new and alive.”
Salstrom says that the overall “maturity, calm and collective understanding” the grad students in Optics demonstrated throughout the remote learning portion of the semester made a lasting impression on him. “They are… wholeheartedly partaking in domestic optical experiments and tests,” he says, ”finding ways to make do and—in the best cases—making artworks.”
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