The Science of Art and the Art of Science

In the fall of 2014, the Materials Science & Engineering and Arts departments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered an unusual course: one that was cross-listed between these two seemingly disparate academic departments.

Donald Stone
Donald Stone

“Artists and engineers are often seen as existing in completely different worlds,” says Donald Stone, chair of the Materials Science department at UW-Madison, “but I think there’s a little bit of the artist in the engineer and engineer in the artist.”

While few universities require engineering students to take art courses or vice-versa, Stone was curious to see what would happen if engineering and arts students combined their skills and expertise and worked together on a highly-involved design project, such as building a fountain.

Why a fountain?

“We wanted a design project that was technically demanding, but also had an incredible artistic slant to it,” says Jeff Mason, who played a key role in designing the class and worked as the Teaching Assistant throughout the course.

“A fountain has to be aesthetically pleasing,” explains Mason, “but from an artist’s point of view fountains are one of the most challenging projects to take on because of how complex they are and how much engineering goes into it.”

Jeff Mason approached David Krakauer, the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), to discuss the idea behind the project and how it might evolve in an environment like the WID. “The project has many of the elements that we emphasize at the WID – passion, intellectual rigor, aesthetic merit, playfullness, practical application, and discipline-free exploration. It was clear that I wanted to support this project with space and provide some of the funding necessary to design and build the fountain,” notes Krakauer.

The fountain project is another step along the path to bringing together innovative, creative people, who happen to speak different disciplinary languages, and providing them with opportunities to learn the tools and skills needed to tackle transdisciplinary projects and questions.

“You sit down with people you think you have nothing in common with, but I know now that means you have all the potential in the world to learn from each other and work well together.”

-Hannah Zimmerman

Neither engineering nor arts students were required to sign up for this class, but their response was overwhelming.

“We were originally planning on limiting the class size to 12 students,” says Mason, “but in the end we had 23 students register for the class and a waiting list a mile long.”

Mason, whose own academic background ranges from art and engineering to law and education, explains the class was offered in part to allow artists and engineers to work together and utilize the unique skill sets they each bring to the table.

Francesca Long is a junior in the Department of Materials Sciences & Engineering and before taking this class hadn’t thought about how different academic fields often seem to have their own ‘language’.

“Whereas if you need to go and speak with somebody from outside your area of specialization, who has no idea about the crystal structure of materials for example, you have to rethink the way you are explaining things” says Long.

Hannah Zimmerman, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, echoes how the class helped her gain first-hand experience about the benefits of working with people who think about the world in a different way.

“You sit down with people you think you have nothing in common with, but I know now that means you have all the potential in the world to learn from each other and work well together,” says Zimmerman, “and that is something I hadn’t witnessed until I took this class.”

Justin Playl, a graduate student in the Arts department, agrees. “Artists and engineers are both makers,” says Playl, but explains that engineers are used to designing as part of a larger team, while artists are used to working individually to conceptualize and craft their art.

“All these people from different backgrounds, not like-minded people at all, coming together to accomplish a large scale project [like the fountain] is something I would never have experienced without this class,” says Playl.

“It was a great way to expand my view of campus and get a new perspective on the University and see what else is out there,” says Long, “and turns out there was this whole other world that I had no idea existed.”

Stone believes a crucial aspect of the class is that it allowed students to get invaluable practical training in designing and building. He says, “I think companies who hire our students love it when they have hands-on experience designing and building things.”

“If I could suggest one thing to the University, it would be that I wished I knew how to work with my hands better,” agrees Zimmerman, “I wish I knew better how to put what is in my head into actuality.”

Stone agrees that knowing the skills needed to build something complicated, like a furnace or a fountain for example, would give students confidence they could take into their careers and their lives.

But getting hands-on experience is not free, or even cheap. “You need access to tools, materials and personnel to teach and work with the students,” says Stone, “and with the proposed cutbacks in funding from the state government, we don’t know what will happen to the course in the future.”

–Adityarup Chakravorty

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