STEAM POWER: Art and STEM as a vehicle for change

By: Francesca Bernardi, Alison Marklein & Anila Yadavalli

Close your eyes and imagine a scientist — what do you see? Do you see someone who is creative? A dancer? An artist? A filmmaker? Do you see a woman? A woman of color? Popular portrayals of science depict a homogenous cast of characters playing with data, graphs, and charts. But in recent years, scientists and non-scientists alike have revelled in film adaptations that delve into the complicated lives of mathematicians and engineers (Hidden Figures, The Man who Knew Infinity) and scientists are starting to get prime billing in popular films and TV shows (Shuri from Black Panther, Rainbow from Black-ish). These screen adaptations show the humanity of science and bring to life a more nuanced and truer version of scientists themselves. That’s the power of STEAM — the combination of science, technology, engineering, art, and math — it fills the imagination, brings ideas to life, and makes us feel. Ask most scientists and they will tell you about their passion for research, the inspiration and excitement of discovery. Science and art are two sides of the same coin, and art can harness the power of emotion to elicit curiosity, discovery, and connection to science.

Artists regularly tap into science to bring important societal issues like climate change to light and scientists integrate the creative process and art into their work. Collaborations among scientists and artists can reach new audiences, bring forth new ideas, and change the way we think about both science and art. Here are some of the amazing projects that have been inspiring us with their love for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Climate Music

The ClimateMusic Project is a collaboration between scientists, artists, and technologists with the goal of inspiring action to mitigate climate change. Scientists bring the climate data and composers assign each data point or feature of the data set to a musical analog. The result is compositions that bring data to life and convey how climate change affects the world. For example, the most recent composition “What if we…?” by Wendy Loomis and Royal Kent of the spoken word jazz band COPUS, describes the future with sea level rise. The piece starts ominously with a droning timpani, followed by future newscasts from around the world announcing specific devastation due to sea level rise. Data on the land area and human population affected by sea level rise are also directly converted into sounds, which become more distorted and chunky as climate change progresses. The piece also features a duel between the bass, which represents land area affected by sea level rise, and the drums, which represent the sea level. The section starts with a bass solo that is slowly drowned out by a drum solo. Kent composed a poem that describes the natural world, urging the listeners to preserve it. The piece itself is hopeful, concluding with a sweet melody and the vocalists singing: “What if we — what if we — what if we — change?”

Composer Wendy Loomis of the band COPUS at the premier of What if we…? In Washington D.C. in October 2019. Photo credit: Ciro Hurtado

Mathemalchemy

Belgian mathematician Ingrid Daubechies and Canadian fiber artist Dominique Ehrmann have come together to create Mathemalchemy, a large-scale multi-media sculpture to visualize mathematics concepts in innovative ways. The collaboration is focused on showing the creative aspects of mathematics research and the linkages across topics. The two created a scale model of their idea and recruited mathematicians/artists to help build the large-scale sculpture. A team of eighteen US-based folks, including Daubechies and Ehrmann, are working together to build the Mathemalchemy art installation. To achieve this goal the group is combining different artistic mediums, including 3D quilting, papier-mâché, metal sculpture, 3D printing, woodworking, ceramics, and more. Their hope is to build a sculpture that can capture the imagination of non-mathematician viewers giving them a glimpse into what it is like to think about mathematics and do mathematics research.

Photo: Scale model of Mathemalchemy, a sculpture to visualize mathematics concepts created by Ingrid Daubechies and Dominique Ehrmann.
Photo credit: http://dominiquehrmann.com/en/mathemalchemy/

SJ Museum of Quilts + Textiles

The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles recently held a solo exhibition called The Forgotten Women of Science by the Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi. The exhibition featured women scientists from the second to nineteenth century and highlighted their contributions to science.The collection drew on the artistic and scientific talents of these women and included installations of embroidered hoops with laboratory notebook drawings, vials of medieval medicinal recipes, and panels with the accomplishments of several women scientists in both text and image. On February 23, 2020, the museum and the County of Santa Clara Office of Women’s Policy co-presented a panel discussion, Women Scientists: Vision & Visibility, with the artist (Pantea Karimi), a science historian (Cassy Christianson), and a scientist (Dr. Suzanne Pierre), who discussed parallels between historical and current status of women in science. Even today, the loudest voices are rarely representative of the scientific community or the broader communities science serves and women continue to be underrepresented. Exhibits like The Forgotten Women of Science at The San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles are using creativity to amplify marginalized voices and pushing for science to be truly representative.

Artist Pantea Karimi’s hanging embroidery hoops and panels depicting women scientists at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in February 2020. Photo credit: Pantea Karimi.

Lifeology

Lifeology, a project by LifeOmic — a health software company that produces free health tracking apps, is a science communication platform that helps people understand science through art. It is a community where scientists, artists, writers, and the public work together to produce educational content in the form of illustrated mini-courses. The mini-courses are mobile-friendly slideshows built to explain health-related topics and scientific research to a lay audience through fun, accessible, and visual content. They are freely accessible and easy to share. Their How to Keep Covid Away course for kids depicts the novel coronavirus as a monster looking for a home in people’s noses. It teaches kids how viruses work and how to help prevent the spreading of COVID-19. The course was shared more than 135k times in the last few weeks. 500 Women Scientists is partnering with Lifeology to create a Women in STEAM course which will feature scientists from the Request a Woman in STEMM platform. Each scientist’s story and research will be illustrated and collected in a Lifeology course.

STEM from Dance

With a background in dance and a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, Yamilée Toussaint Beach, CEO and founder of STEM from Dance, uses dance to build confidence in girls of color and to address the lack of diversity in STEM. Through her experience teaching algebra to under-resourced students in New York City, Toussaint Beach saw that girls from low-income schools lacked awareness of opportunities in STEM. She created STEM from Dance as a space for girls of color to combine the creativity of dance with elements of engineering and technology. She believes this is a winning combination for sparking interest in STEM and bringing awareness to careers that combine creativity and the sciences. “Imagine talking to a student about being a chemist versus being the head of technology for Beyonce’s tour,” she says. “That’s a different conversation.”

Each year, STEM from Dance runs a summer program, Girls Rise Up, in which girls learn to code and dance. On the final day, the campers perform tech-inspired dance routines of their own creation. Curious to know what a tech-inspired dance routine looks like? Some of their pieces are spotlighted on the STEM from Dance website!

Photo from @stemfromdance: https://www.instagram.com/p/B-7A1FdAp7M/

Space MOMs

Eager to use film as a medium to tell the story of scientific excellence, Los Angeles-based writer-director Radha Bharadwaj created the film Space MOMs. The story follows engineers Shanti and Vimala, two characters inspired by the women engineers who worked on India’s successful 2014 Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). The film is personal for Bharadwaj, who is all too familiar with the lack of positive portrayals of female scientific excellence. As an Indian woman, Bharadwaj chose to celebrate the contributions of women in the Indian Space MOM program and use the film to bring awareness to the challenges women face in India. Bharadwaj’s inspiration traces back to her own childhood, when she first read about the moment Marie Curie discovered radium, and imagined the scene set to rousing music, with a close-up of Curie’s face as years of dedication culminated in triumph.

Image courtesy of Radha Bharadwaj

“I ask scientists to see artists as another very powerful arrow in [their] quiver: artists can tell your stories of scientific excellence. We can take the story of your scientific breakthrough wide. We can inspire the young to follow in your footsteps,” says Bharadwaj. “I did this in Space MOMs, by breaking down complex scientific problems and challenges [faced by the MOMs] to their raw, emotional components; by making the scientists people anyone can empathize with and root for.”

Working to make science open, inclusive, and accessible.

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