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IDEAStudio Works on STEAM

Two engineering students and an art student presented a roving robot at the IDEAStudio at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
As part of their senior capstone project, two engineering students and an art student presented a roving robot that their teams created collaboratively within the IDEAStudio at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Equipped with wheels, a camera, and robotic arms, the rover is controlled remotely using two laptop computers and a router. University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth opens a new studio to facilitate collaboration between engineers and artists.

October 15, 2013—The University of Massachusetts (UMass) Dartmouth recently unveiled a new studio aimed at bringing together art and engineering students for collaborative projects via the growing technological intersection between the distinct fields.

Nestled in a 943 sq ft space in the Textile Building on campus, the IDEAStudio houses a suite of cutting-edge equipment that both engineering and art students use to create their designs. The studio has a 3-D printer, as well as a laser cutter, a laser engraver, as well as animation software, motion-caption software, and a large green screen for video projects. (Read about University of California at San Diego’s building for engineering and the arts in “Engineering Meets the Arts,” Civil Engineering, November 2012.)

“In the arts, we make up stuff. We don’t have a problem to solve. Sometimes we see an opportunity and grab it,” says Adrian Tió, the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UMass Dartmouth. “We thought if you put problem solvers with idea people, you end up with a real nice, collaborative team that thinks out of the box and can approach projects perhaps with viewpoints that neither side would be familiar with but would benefit from.”

The IDEAStudio itself began as a collaborative process. Robert Peck, Ph.D., the dean of the College of Engineering, was interested in developing collaborations between engineering and art students. Tió was enthused by the prospect. At the same time, UMass Dartmouth development staff was in contact with 1985 graduates Susan Hall, an art educator, and Norm “Chip” Hildreth, vice president of engineering and business development for Hittite Microwave, in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

Hildreth says that when he and Hall were undergraduates at UMass Dartmouth, they often thought about the possibilities of bringing engineers and artists together.

“We thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was a collaborative space, or even something built into the curriculum, [by which] engineers, artists, and people from other colleges—marketing people, business people, humanities people—could come and work together on projects?’” Hildreth recalls.

“We started brainstorming and sharing some ideas about how we can create educational and learning opportunities for students,” Peck says. “We put together a concept paper. They were enthusiastic about supporting it, so we went ahead. I had some lab space reserved for a new enterprise. We remodeled it, refurbished it, and with their support we were able to provide some equipment.”

Although the IDEAStudio opened recently, it is very much a work in progress, Peck says. Although the deans both want to include programmatic elements to bring students together, they also express a desire to keep an open, informal atmosphere to encourage impromptu collaboration.

“We need to experiment a little bit about [how] students will [actually] come together and how they will use the equipment that is in there,” Peck says. “We didn’t want to be too restrictive in terms of even the types of equipment we put in there until we see how the students will actually use it.

“It opens up pedagogically how we design a course or a curriculum,” Peck continues. “Fine arts have studios, engineering has labs. How we can bring those together? We are trying to break down those barriers and bring students together in a different way. That’s a challenge for us.”

Tió says that arts and engineering share a great deal of technological applications, and that is what is helping to break down the silos between the fields.

“The equipment that engineers have in engineering studios is exactly the same equipment that art students have in art studios, but the results are very different,” Tió says. “You put these two different thoughts together and you are getting at basically what [Robert M.] Pirsig was talking about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You need the classic and romantic duality as a team because between the two, you really can reach a much richer, much fuller spectrum in terms of what the output is.”

Tió says that the current movement that emphasizes education in science, technology, education, and math (STEM) is short one letter. “There are a lot of us in the visual arts who are saying, ‘you forgot the letter A.’ It should really be STEAM,” Tió says.

Peck agrees, citing the iPhone and the Bay Bridge as examples of the union of aesthetic design and precision engineering. “At the intersection of this—you might think of this as industrial design or environmental design—you can have students from art, business, engineering—maybe communications and media. Hopefully we can continue to grow this enterprise. You could even call it an invention space [and] maybe spawn some businesses; student-created businesses could come out of this as well. I think it leads to a lot of opportunities. We are all very excited about it.”



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