Commonly thought of as exclusive to legislative work and developing written laws, public policy is an often unnamed aspect of design thinking. Public policy must be responsive, investigate practices and be solution oriented. But what does it have to do with STEAM? STEAM is the product of incorporating arts and design into the federal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program. Based on the idea that breakthrough innovation, economic viability and societal development is dependent on long term governmental support of arts and design through comprehensive education and research, STEAM embraces the notion of right-brain innovation helping the United States remain a leader in innovation throughout the 21st century.
In support of this idea, the family based company and textile producer Maharam has developed programs as educational STEAM resources. One of Maharam's collaborations is with the Rhode Island School of Design. The prestigious RISD Maharam STEAM Fellowship offers up to $5,000 to accepted students who have designed summer internship experiences with an organization (excluding for-profit companies) in which designers are not usually found. In addition to funding the experience, the Fellowship provides students unparalleled professional experiences outside of the exclusively art and design scope academically offered by RISD. In what may have been the last year of funding, the work of 2016's Maharam Fellowship Recipients is particularly unique and distinguished.
Read on for particularly STEAM(y) Q&As with three of this year's recipients:
Can you tell me a little bit about the work you've done with Dynamic Robotics Lab?
This summer, I was an artist working alongside roboticists. My approach was more that of an artist in residence than an intern: my goal was to bring the environment of the lab and my own practice into dialogue. I was free to float between different research groups, which was immeasurably helpful in understanding the broader scope of the conceptual and technical frameworks being used.
Concurrently, I was looking for opportunities to bring my own practice into this discourse. Frequently I address memory through my own memorization of p, which I can recall (mostly accurately) to ten thousand digits. After completing a number of experiments using Robot Operating System (ROS) with various simulators and controllers, I developed a project in which I used the recitation of p as a control system for a PR2 robot. The goal was to maintain a constant level of entropy between my recitation and the robot's movements.
What drew you to Dynamic Robotics Lab?
When I was first speaking with the directors of the lab, it was clear that they really valued conceptual rigor within their own research. What's more is that they were looking for discourse with traditionally differentiated fields. Those approaches made interacting with the lab really exciting and edifying. It was thrilling to speak with some individuals who are immersed in the philosophical tensions inherent in robotics and also some who are more fascinated by technical problems like deep learning. From my perspective, it was important to fully engage with both.
Another reason I was particularly interested in the lab was ROS. ROS is an open source series of frameworks used to program robots. The lab is highly active in the ROS community, and uses it for most of their research. While microcontrollers like Arduino are increasingly popular and can be very efficacious, ROS's ability to interact with complex robotic systems offers an exciting alternative approach. ROS is more of a discrete complex object as opposed to a swarm mentality. Helping to make ROS more widely known (and therefore accessible) was also a major reason to work with the lab.
How does your work as a Digital Media student inform the work you've done through your fellowship?
Digital Media as a program emphasizes conceptual rigor through research and experimentation. Digital media artists (including those using robotics and physical computing) are frequently producing work about the foundations of technology, and the inherent connections to science and technology make for a truly rich theoretical background. Digital Media discourse is informed not only by art theory, but by the history and philosophy of science, Science and Technology Studies, and epistemology. This meant that I could approach my experience as related to sociologists such as Bruno Latour and Andrew Pickering, or see my work in relation to contemporary research on Human-Robot Interaction.
Digital media artists always need to be ready to seek out new languages. This is both because the languages are constantly changing and because they must be ready to broaden their practice and push it in new directions. Being ready to dive into a complex new language like ROS in a rigorous way was something that Digital Media prepared me for.
So it's safe to say you feel RISD prepared you for this experience?
Heading into a highly specialized and technically demanding environment like a robotics lab is an experience that requires all your faculties. Fortunately, RISD has a fantastic way of preparing you to use everything you've got to work as hard as you can. Studying at RISD prepared me not only to dive in and pursue a rigorous technical understanding of a new problem, but also to be mindful of conceptual differences and open to how they might interact with my own practice.
What are some highlights from your time with Dynamics Robotics Lab this summer?
Each working environment has its own technological style, and getting to acclimate myself to the culture of the lab was really edifying. The range of tools and languages roboticists are built around and express their own approach to their work. This also goes for knowing what type of work they do and how they do it! There's absolutely no better way to find out what's possible than experiencing it firsthand, and getting to see it in action was really tremendous.
What was your takeaway of the experience?
I ended this summer not only with new technical skills, but a better conceptual understanding of the culture of robotics and of the nature of Human-Robot Interaction. The problem of understanding what robots can and should do—and how to make them do it—is incredibly complex. Being immersed in an environment that is totally dedicated to such questions truly broadened my own practice and understanding.
Can you tell me a little bit about the work you've done with Cadence International and the US Marines?
Though the Maharam Fellowship, I had the great privilege of traveling to Okinawa, Japan, to develop a leadership program based on design. I had a class of US Marines and Airmen and a class of high school students which met weekly to research, design and build a stand up paddle board from locally sourced materials. A human-centered design approach lends itself well to leadership development. An emphasis is placed on empathy, which is crucial to leadership but not always recognized. Other leadership characteristics, such as the ability to collaborate, critical thinking, and creative problem solving also flow easily from design. I really enjoy leading project-based learning because it incorporates multiple learning styles and provides a lot of time for life conversations to occur. Some of the greatest lessons are caught from these discussions as students share what is going on in their lives and we, as a class, are able to relate those issues back to what we're learning.
What drew you to the US Marines and Cadence International?
I had previously worked with Cadence. When I read Maharam's desire to place artists and designers in places not typically populated by creatives, the Marine Corps immediately came to mind. They are well known for discipline, esprit de corps, and uniformity—but not so much for creativity and free thinking. The former traits are necessary for efficiency in such a large organization and non-conformity can be detrimental in extreme situations, such as combat. I believe, however, that the lack of creative permission within military culture comes at the cost of empathy and innovation. Okinawa is a prime example of strained relations between the host community and the military personnel. Many of the young Marines, in particular, are consumed by the military culture. Work isn't just a 9-5, it's 24/7—most of your friends are people from your unit. They are so involved in their professional world that the world outside the base gate is less of a priority, almost a lesser reality at times, than the reality of their mission. Getting to know their neighbors and merchants, or understanding their impact on other people isn't an immediate concern. Art and design have the ability to restore the humanity in one's neighbor. Creative problem solving provides the potential to innovate and even to complete the mission more efficiently.
How does your work as a Art Education student inform the work you've done through your fellowship?
I was in the Teaching + Learning in Art + Design department at RISD. My Art + Design Education major really helped me to formalize the structure of the program. My thesis researched the role of mentoring in art and design community development organizations. I was able to look at an array of education philosophies to see how they are effectively being utilized, essentially to raise up leaders in struggling communities. The mentoring structure I utilized for the classes came largely from my research and from RISD exemplars. On the first day of class, I informed the students that I have never built a paddle board and am certainly no expert. Design and leadership, however, are best practiced as collaborative learning experiments. We each bring something to the studio to contribute. I was there to facilitate the class and offer advice on materials and making, but the design was collective. In the end, I could see each person's individual fingerprints in the designs, which was a gratifying experience.
In what ways do you feel your time at RISD prepared you for this experience?
A year before applying to RISD, I spent three months in Kathmandu, Nepal, developing a jewelry making and education program for a social enterprise. At the end of my time there, I realized that my fine arts skills were the tools I used most in order to be successful. It was then that I realized art could be valuable for building community in new ways. RISD prepared me in a couple of key ways toward this point in my development. It helped me to formalize the creative problem-solving structure of fine art by translating it into design principles and practice. My time at RISD also showed me that I wasn't alone. Working with Dr. Sproll through Project Open Door, as well as with my cohort, broadened my imagination of the ways art and design enrich communities and honed my teaching and mentoring skills.
What are some highlights from your time developing the program this summer?
I can't express adequately how beautiful Okinawa is, how rich the culture is, or how beautiful their people are. I would be remiss in not talking about them. As far as the program goes, however, teachers love eureka moments. There were a couple of moments when the lights turned on. One serendipitous moment came when the high school students were testing scale prototypes of their board shapes in a tidal pool on the beach. They had several great designs, but none were behaving in the water like they had hoped. As they pushed the boards around, weighted with water bottles, a smaller board became lodged under a much larger one. Someone, for curiosity's sake, lined the smaller one up along the bottom of the larger one and gave it a shove. There was a collective hush and then a burst of excitement as everyone realized that it was doing what we had all been searching for. Everyone ran back to the studio and drew up the design for the final product.
Another moment was with a young marine who didn't care for sergeants. We were researching who our target customers would be if we were working as or for a paddle board company. He returned with a handful of surveys from his peers. I asked why he didn't survey anyone of higher rank, and he replied that he doesn't like them. We looked at the data he had collected to realize that his peers don't have a large enough income to buy our boards, but that sergeants might make a great target group. As we talked about the importance of empathizing with those above you, he realized it was because the sergeants seemingly don't empathize with jr. enlisted marines that causes his grief. He also admitted that he knows very little about them or the job that they are responsible for. What's more, he was dumbstruck at the realization that, should he have a successful career, he would be one of those sergeants in just a couple of years. The discussion then led beyond work to encourage him to expand his world beyond work and outside of the fence.
How do you feel the research, design and manufacturing of paddle boards translates to leadership skills that can be applied throughout varying, diverse communities?
My research through the fellowship has allowed me to begin work on creating a curriculum for design as leadership and community development. It also allowed me to experience some of the hurdles that come with introducing creative concepts within a culture that is ambivalent, or even hostile towards them. I found that the marines, though just a year older than the high school students, were far more reticent to engage in brain storming and wild, imaginative thinking. I realized that they needed to feel that they had permission in order to think differently. Once that permission of release was established, they began to come up with great ideas. Having finished the program, I am convinced more than ever that art and design can be used effectively in various communities. Even if all that it does is give people the permission to think differently, a kernel of hope can be planted for innovation, creative problem solving and eventual sustainability.
What drew you to GenSpace?
My interest in GenSpace really developed about two years ago. I had been doing a lot of research about biomaterials and biofilaments through textiles and a lot of research about artists using living organisms or making ethical statements and discovered GenSpace is very important for this realm. Long story short, I first ended up volunteering for them in October of 2015 and became further interested in understanding how GenSpace functioned as a nonprofit and its place in this evolving space for genetically modified products and the lack of regulation of such in the U.S. So, I did some individual research and wasn't really finding much content that spoke specifically to community biolabs. I was thinking GenSpace was the perfect place to see what role community biolabs have in facilitating a more broad understanding of ethical limitations and possibilities of genetic modification.
It's hard to find an unbiased opinion or information source about genetic modification. The US doesn't have a specific government department responsible for regulating biosafety level I or II facilities, which makes sense really. GenSpace became the first community biolab founded in the US in 2010, and most community biolabs are level I. For a biosafety level I lab, you don't really need that type of in-depth government safety regulation because you're not working with any pathogen corgensens. But the thing is, you technically could transform a nonpathogenic bacteria or ecoli strain to have pathogenic characteristics. So the capability is there, but these spaces are incredibly innocuous. Still, there is a lot of leeway for product development in terms of being crowdfunded. An example of this is a grow-your-own glow-in-the dark-plant project that was crowdfunded and came into awareness of the Department of Health much later than would be expected, which was concerning. The Wilson Center of Policy does a lot of nonpartisan policy research on proposed ways for product development, specifically genetically modified product development, and how the process should be carried out. But, their research is all documents and nothing is really put into effect. So, in going to GenSpace I found out that it is really just like a makerspace, and I developed an understanding that the policy aspect is incredibly interesting, yet fully speculative and rarely put into effect.
Can you tell me a bit about the work you've done with Genspace?
So, coming to GenSpace I was initially interested in public engagement and looking at who was, and why people were, coming to the space and getting my own understanding of patterns of public engagement. I started out by observing their classes and participating in their introduction to biotech class and just being a part of their community. Just being there over time, I was able to understand not just the scientific work they do, but what this space needs from a designer's viewpoint. It really informed me how our education at RISD and education as artists necessitates understandings of scientific processes that could insight artists to make political statements. I realized just how innocuous some of these processes are. While observing and helping with their IGEM (International Genetic Engineering Machine competition) team, I realized that they really seemed to be lacking content for visual learners. It seemed during classes that people were somewhat able to process what they were learning, but were not able to repeat or reiterate it or really apply it. So I began doing drawings for the lab protocols. I was doing a lot of research and understanding what visuals teachers were using in that space and thinking how can I make a hieroglyphic-esque key of visual images that relate to each machine and each process?
How does your work as a textile major inform the work you've done through your fellowship?
RISD prepared me well in terms of observational skills. Observation was really key. What drew me to this space was thinking about patterns and visualizing structures and where GenSpace and other community biolabs fit in the narrative of public development and public access. From growing algae in different pH levels to apply to a crystal lamp structure or thinking about how to get an ecoli bacteria to produce a different output to produce natural pigment for dye—both projects members were working on there— I was able to observe and understand what patterns of regulation do or do not exist. We traditionally define textiles as something very static and physical, when print and pattern, which play an integral role in textiles education, should be more reactive and has a lot of room for content. I found my understanding of textiles to be easily translatable to infographics, which is another side interest I incorporated this past summer.
How did the rest of your RISD education prepare you for this experience?
In addition to the knowledge I've gained from my involvement with RISD and Brown's STEAM, Nature Culture Sustainability Studies concentration classes, especially the liberal classes, really helped to prepare me. Some of the classes, particularly my Eco Poetry class, really opened my eyes to the idea of translation and potential for modes of communication. From that I became interested in translation and the reference of the ethical, which is always defined by current cultural understandings.
It sounds like you learned so much in such a short amount of time, any highlights you'd like to share?
Through my work at GenSpace, I learned the importance of an immersive approach through spending ample time understanding the space and culture and becoming a part of that. Additionally, I learned the logistics of working with people in a makerspace post graduate and how to navigate working with people who are there for varying reasons. For some, coming to GenSpace was a hobby, but for others, some parts are not a hobby. It was a worthwhile experience in understanding how I will go about working in similar spaces after RISD.
To learn more about each Maharam Fellow's journey, check out their blog.
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