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Beyond STEM to STEAM

a2ru Emerging Creatives Conference features MIT students at the intersection of art, science, and technology
Students from the break-out team who developed "Aspire America."
Students from the break-out team who developed "Aspire America."
Photo: Sheng-Ying Pao

Hundreds of students from 25 schools came together to participate in a series of experiential “design thinking bootcamps” at the first annual a2ru Emerging Student Creatives conference. Stanford University’s Stanford Arts Institute hosted the event, with a creative session held in Stanford’s “d school,” the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Amid the pale Mission Revival buildings and blue skies of Palo Alto, attendees explored new modes of creative thinking outside the traditional confines of the classroom while connecting with students from other schools and disciplines.

The conference was hosted by a2ru, a new national advocacy organization for integrating the arts into research universities, of which MIT is a founding member among 30 universities. “The a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Conference exemplifies a national movement that reaches beyond STEM to STEAM,” says a2ru Interim Executive Director Anthony Kolenic. “It shows how interdisciplinary work inclusive of the arts can be further understood on its own terms, and it puts the tools with which to do so right into the students’ hands.”

At the conference, students organized themselves into breakout groups under different action-oriented foci. The fruits of these sessions ranged from the humorous and macabre MicroMort app, which gauges the user’s likelihood of dying at any given moment based on the risk factors associated with their daily activities, to Aspire Airlines, a new airline experience that fosters a collaborative work environment among seatmates.

The event culminated in a closing address led by Leila Kinney, a member of the executive committee of a2ru and executive director of arts initiatives at MIT, which include the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). “Beginning with the presidency of Jerome H. Wiesner in the 1970s, MIT incorporated the arts as a conduit of innovation, believing them to be essential to the creative environment of a research institution renowned for science and engineering,” Kinney says. “Although we sometimes have to remind ourselves of that fact here at MIT, it is gratifying to join forces with an organization dedicated to integrating the arts into research universities nationwide and recognizing their powerful role in fostering flexible thinking, disciplined collaboration, and creative departures from the norm.”

Sam Magee, manager of student programs, presented “Infinite Connections: Arts, Science and Technology,” describing the MIT Creative Arts Competition, a $10,000 prize awarded annually in the launch phase of the MIT $100K Competition, for the innovative use of the arts as a core component of a business plan.

Lecture-demonstrations by three MIT students — Bruno Tambasco, Grace Young, and Sheng-Ying Pao — closed the conference. Tambasco, a São Paulo native and MIT Sloan School of Management student who is focused on the future of film and video games, presented on Hacking Arts, MIT’s first annual festival and hackathon exploring the intersection of arts, entertainment, technology, and entrepreneurship, organized by students in the MIT Sloan School of Management in fall 2013. In a new partnership, CAST and the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship will join the Hacking Arts festival each fall with a number of accelerator events that will culminate in the $10K Creative Arts Competition the following spring.

Young, an engineer and former ballerina with an interest in marine robotics, debuted her project “Dance Training with Digital Tools,” a system to track a dancer’s alignment during a pirouette turn to improve performance and reduce injuries.

Pao, a PhD candidate in the Media Lab, introduced a research project in “augmented participatory design,” in which a not-so-ordinary pen, when twisted, turns simple sketches into lively animations.

All of these projects demonstrate how the arts both enhance interdisciplinary research at the Institute and spawn new directions for inquiry.

The conference brought students of diverse backgrounds together in meaningful collaboration. “The goal was to create real and lasting collaboration between schools, and not just for artists, but for students from all disciplines engaged in creative work,” Magee says. Among conference attendees from universities across the country, Young says she noticed impediments to collaboration from the science and engineering communities. “The problem is that people often envision engineers as Iron Man-like figures, i.e., geniuses who work in isolation,” she says. “But the reality is that real results require teamwork, and, as a2ru stressed, it is researchers' responsibility to go out of their way, even out of their comfort zone, to collaborate.”

The conference was also a chance to educate outside audiences about all MIT has to offer in the arts. “The breadth and vibrancy of arts on campus is easy to talk about,” Young says. “People are quickly convinced that MIT is a place for artists as well as engineers and scientists.”

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