R.I., Mass. students collaborate on STEAM

THE RIGHT BEAT: Brown student Alex Czulak tries on the prototype of a wearable device Czulak and RISD student Evan Brooks designed that communicates pulses wirelessly. / COURTESY RYAN MATHER
THE RIGHT BEAT: Brown student Alex Czulak tries on the prototype of a wearable device Czulak and RISD student Evan Brooks designed that communicates pulses wirelessly. / COURTESY RYAN MATHER

(Corrected, Feb. 25, 10:36 a.m.)

Collaborating on science, technology, engineering, arts and math through a highly selective workshop that involved students at three universities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts has led participants to new insights and, for some, pursuit of a new STEAM initiative.
A prototype device that communicates a pulse wirelessly between two people turned out to be one of several highlights of the Human + Computer workshop series launched by Rhode Island School of Design junior Ryan Mather.
Fourteen students culled from 99 applicants participated, said Sophia Brueckner, a graduate student and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, who along with two other graduate students from the MIT Media Lab and Mather, served as an instructor.
With no corporate sponsorship but about $2,000 raised in funding from the three universities and their affiliates, the four-week workshop that ended earlier this month involved students from RISD, Brown University and MIT, Mather said. Classes were held at both MIT and RISD. Study of the methods and implications of merging humans and technology culminated in a show at RISD Feb. 20 of the various prototypes developed through the program.
Mather conceived of the workshop series in the fall semester as a way to strengthen the relationships between the three schools, he said, noting that all three schools set goals and built the syllabus.
“One of the goals was just to get people from the different schools to work together across disciplines and learn from the way each other thinks,” said Brueckner. “And also, the goal was to see what we could build in four weeks.”
Evan Brooks, a senior majoring in graphic design at RISD, and Alex Czulak, a first-year graduate student studying food dynamics at Brown, developed the pulse-detection device. They also produced an entertaining ad and video that amplified the potential value and danger that such a device might have on relationships generally and things like airport security in particular, Brooks and Mather said. A mock-up Facebook ad illustrated the value of “keeping someone close,” Mather said, while a fictional Transportation Security Administration video thanked would-be users for allowing the agency to pick out nervous people at airports who could pose security threats.
“Thank you for allowing us access to your heartbeat-control device so we can implement our irregular-control algorithm,” Mather quoted the video narrator as saying. Added Mather: “You could really get a picture of the consequences of a world where this device was commonplace.”
Brooks said he loved the workshops where everyone got together to study and collaborate.
“It was so open-ended,” he said. “They gave us this information and they said, ‘We’re wondering about how humans and computers would interact in the future.’ And then they just let us go and make whatever we wanted. It’s not like the assignments you do in school.”
Other prototypes included a garment that resembles a swarm of butterflies that challenges one’s perception of the real, and a silicone-cast brain that visualizes the cognition of the person holding it.
Ian Gonsher, a lecturer in Brown’s School of Engineering, associate director of the Creative Mind Initiative, and an informal Brown STEAM club adviser, said he was “blown away” by the projects developed during the workshop, and students’ use of micro-control and 3-D technology.
“The work is rich and has a conceptual complexity to it that makes it interesting,” he said. “They’re really probing what the future will look like: transhumanism – the next step in the evolution of people and how technology is changing people in a dramatic way.”
Mather founded the RISD STEAM Club, or initiative, in 2011, he said.
Using STEAM as a source of inspiration, the workshop combined the design of new body/machine interfaces with learning relevant technical skills in electronics, digital fabrication and programming, Mather said. Students focused not only on building wearable devices, but human augmentation, and more visceral forms of communication, working in groups to conceptualize, prototype and build functioning versions of their ideas. They also used digital fabrication processes like laser cutting and 3-D printing, all the while staying in touch with fine-art processes and critique, he said.
As a result of participating in the workshop, MIT junior Alice Huang reached out to freshman Grace Li, who did not participate, and together they are serving as co-presidents of a new STEAM initiative at MIT, Li said. Brueckner is also involved in the effort, which will include both faculty and students, they said.
The initiative is still in the formative stages, and will involve both students and faculty, Li and Brueckner added.
“RISD and Brown wanted to see STEAM expand at MIT so we’re finally doing it,” said Li. “It was the synergy and collaboration of the schools – a design school (RISD), a more liberal arts school (Brown) and a technological institution (MIT) – that we really wanted to expand as a connection to the MIT community.”
Michelle Site, a senior at Brown and STEAM co-president there, said the MIT STEAM initiative is an “absolutely fantastic” development.
“Having the initiative spread to MIT will make it a much more conscious effort that will hopefully generate more awareness and more participation because there’s a central place for this kind of thinking,” she said.
The MIT STEAM Initiative would be part of the arts program at MIT, Brueckner said. Leila Kinney, executive director of Arts Initiatives for MIT, welcomed the idea.
“We don’t have a STEAM club, so in that sense, yes, it would be new, but one of the great things about MIT is, the idea of integrating the arts into the STEAM curriculum has permeated MIT’s history,” Kinney said. “It would be great to especially raise other people’s awareness outside MIT and for the leadership at MIT to capitalize upon it more.” •

The original version of this story incorrectly identified the student in the photo as Lukas WinklerPrins.

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