Bringing Art, Architecture, Music, Theater, and Dance Students into Earth and Space Science Research Labs: Piloting A New Art, Science, and Engineering Student Artist-in-Residency Program
By Mark B. Moldwin (Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, University of Michigan) and Deb Mexicotte (Managing Director, Arts Engine, University of Michigan)
We recently developed a new art/science residency program at the University of Michigan and hope that it inspires other such undergraduate artists-in-residence programs at other universities. This program is designed to offer fun and unique informal educational experiences, while encouraging interdisciplinary learning and creative production by exposing students to life and work in an alternate discipline's maker space - i.e. the artist in the engineering lab, the scientist in the artist's studio or performance space. Each residency comes with a cash prize and the expectation that a work of some kind will be produced as a response to the experience. As part of the residency experience, undergraduate and graduate students working in the lab describe their research and allow the student artists to shadow them to learn more about their work. Student artists are also actively mentored by the supervising faculty member and included in research group meetings and other research activities as appropriate.
The Moldwin Prize, which is the first of these student residencies at the University of Michigan, is designed for an undergraduate student currently enrolled in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, or the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance who is interested in exchange and collaboration with students engaged in research practice in a science and engineering lab – specifically one dedicated to space and climate. No previous science or engineering experience is required, although curiosity and a willingness to explore are essential. Students receiving the residency spend 20 - 30 hours over the course of a semester participating with the undergraduate or graduate research team in the lab of Professor Mark Moldwin, which does work in the areas of space weather (how the Sun influences the space environment of Earth and society) and magnetic sensor development. The resident student artist gains a greater understanding of research methodologies in the space and climate fields, data visualization and communication techniques, and how the collision of disciplinary knowledge in the arts, engineering, and sciences deepens the creative practice and production of each discipline. The student is expected to produce a final work of some kind within their discipline that reflects, builds on, explores, integrates, or traces their experience in the residency. We just began the 3rd year of the project and have had four students fully complete their residency, one student in process toward a December 2018 completion, and have two students currently participating this Fall 2018 semester. Arts Engine is hoping to expand the program to other research labs, studio and performance spaces, and, perhaps, even other universities.
The program was inspired by University of Illinois Chemistry Prof. Cathryn Murphy who described a Murphy Lab Observer/Participant program. to bring artists into her research lab to create a piece of work inspired by her research at a research conference that Prof. Moldwin attended a few years ago. The goals of the Moldwin Art Prize are to enable science and engineering students to describe their work to artists and have them learn the process of the investigation, to enable artists to describe how the creative process in their studio is similar and different from a science lab, to create and produce a cool and exciting work inspired by activities in the lab, and to facilitate interdisciplinary interactions between artists and scientists. We also hope to expand the program to include more engineering and science faculty and include placing science and engineering students into artist and performance studios.
The first two students selected for the Art Residency in 2017 were Anna Brooks and Joe Iovino – both students in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. The original thought was that they would work independently, but after several lab meetings and discussions about the scientific component to their work they were excited to combine their talents. Anna and Joe created a video animation of how the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere to protect us from space weather and create aurora. The stop-animation video was made with paper objects with light projected through it and consisted of a number of sets showing the different domains. Anna composed, played the guitar and sang the accompanying soundtrack.At the end of the residency, Professor Moldwin threw a party at his home to screen Our Magnetic Shield. “We met so many interesting people — scientists and researchers — and many were interested in similar collaborations with us,” said Iovino.
During the Winter semester of 2018, a metal sculpture was inspired by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs are large explosions of solar material that can create havoc in the Earth’s space environment and give rise to high levels of auroral activity). Maite Iribarren’s vision was to create a large three-dimensional sculpture of the CME and wanted to give it depth by inserting a neon light to represent the plasma contained within the magnetic structure. In the studio as she was cutting out strips from the large metal sheets she noticed that the stacked “refuse” of the cut-outs made an interesting design. Consequently, her work became two separate sculptures– a three-dimensional multi-media sculpture and a two-dimensional metal wall hanging.
Impact on Scientists and Engineers
The project has had an interesting impact on Prof. Moldwin and several of his students. The most important is the appreciation of design in our communication of our science. Student’s in the lab have taken workshops on “poster” presentations and in group discussions with the artists have thought about the impact of layout, color, and simplicity in their papers, figures and poster presentations.
Prof. Moldwin has also been inspired to co-teach UARTS 250 “The Creative Process,” a course co-taught by faculty within U-M Art and Design, Music, Theatre and Dance, Architecture and Urban Planning, and Engineering in Winter 2019.
The two new resident artists each semester have become an important part of the Magnetometer Lab group dynamics. When they are present the science and engineering students recognize that they have to “step back” and explain their work for non-experts. Since there are usually 8 to 12 students from a variety of disciplines (Electrical Engineering to Space Physics) and ranging from freshman to PhD students in the lab each semester working on a variety of science and engineering projects, this has improved communication in general as it has emboldened the students to ask each other basic questions since we are all non-experts in many aspects of the different research projects.
Impact on Artists and Designers
Students in art, performance, and design who have had the opportunity to work in Prof. Moldwin’s lab have reported increased understanding of scientific methods and principles, encouragement and confidence to participate in new collaborative opportunities, and improved communication skills. They have also indicated a new and evolving understanding of the vital role artists can play in the communication about and connections to science and engineering for citizens and society.
Moldwin Prize participants have also been able to leverage their residency work toward career outcomes by expanding the breadth of their portfolios, entering their work in other competitions and exhibitions, and increasing their experience in team-building, communication, and interdisciplinary research.
We will continue supporting two students each semester in the Magnetometer Lab and have been advertising to recruit other science and engineering faculty to expand the opportunity for artists, architects, and performers to participate in these Art/Science residencies. We also hope to recruit faculty in the Arts to host scientists and engineers in their studios and performance space to enable better understanding of the creative process in the different disciplines. Feel free to reach out to the authors for information to create similar programs on your campus.