Steaming Ahead

Above: Boston University College of Engineering undergraduates in the Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP) and STEM Educator Engineer Program (STEEP) are making a difference, creating the next generation of young engineers.
Students Find Commonality at the Intersections of Art and Science

by Brooke Yarborough and Emily Wade


To be an artist or a scientist, one must be both curious and inventive. One must practice rigorously, accept the occasional defeat, and persevere in the face of constant questioning. It is only natural that STEM+Art=STEAM initiatives are appearing throughout the US, as educational experts become increasingly aware of the fundamental importance of creativity in the sciences.

As a leading research institution, Boston University offers the opportunity to create an interdisciplinary path forward for students who are passionate about the arts and STEM fields. Spark had the pleasure of interviewing a few of these trailblazers, and in the course of writing this story, we learned that Albert Einstein played Violin, Max Planck wrote an opera, and that the spirit of DaVinci, probably the most famous of all Artist/Engineers, is alive and well within our students.


Question 1: How do you relate ____ and _____?

Engineering and Art

GF: The primary focus of the Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP) is Boston Public Schools. Our Ambassadors help students use math, science, creativity, and teamwork to design solutions to societal problems, the problems kids care about. One recent design challenge was an origami-based challenge funded by NASA. High school students worked alongside BU’s engineers to create a model, based on the principles of origami, of the James Webb Space Telescope. The Webb Telescope will be able to see more than 1 million miles from Earth, exposing galaxies never seen before. It is the first of its kind to actually employ origami. Approximately 30 minutes after launch, the telescope will start to unfold exposing the sunshield and mirror that allow it to collect greater wavelengths of infrared radiations than the Hubble telescope. In the model, students were challenged with fitting the solar panel, antenna, computer, and camera—all the things it needs to do its job— into the space craft bus, using origami. Using creativity and teamwork, students had to make sure it worked, and make sure each of the pieces fit, all while learning the important lesson of trial and error.

Science and Music

HS: I compose both acoustic and electroacoustic music that incorporates live instruments and electronic sounds. I’m fascinated by sound— natural, instrumental, and computer-made— and do quite a bit of analysis of sounds that interest me to compose my music. I rely on an understanding of the principles of acoustics, perception, and digital signal processing for both sound analysis and creating the electronic component of my pieces.

Violin and Physics

NU: Both music and physics have a systematic way of portraying something that is very abstract. Physics seeks to understand the world: why things are the way they are and why we’re here. In the same sense, music helps us understand who we are as humans. It has the power to encapsulate our perception of something, our emotions, into the physical world.

Music Composition and Physics

DC: I know [an intersection] exists, but for me, I think music composition and physics appeal to the same sorts of ideas. Both take a high level of mental rigor and are process-oriented. This is especially true for music composition. You need to have the mental discipline to impose boundaries on the score, to apply a set of rules. Both require a high level of symmetry, and the ability to look at different perspectives. It takes a strong creative aspect to navigate that landscape.

Music Performance and Neuroscience

KC: Speech and noise are hot topics in auditory science. We’re at a point in neuroscience where we can really look at and understand the brain. In 2014, I organized the first BU Music and the Brain Symposium. Through research, I found that those with musical training perform better in certain environments. They are able to discern a target talker in a social situation. And they possess possible enhancements in cognitive functioning that further improve their ability to remember details, and attend to other objects. While the findings are elusive—we’re still trying to determine whether it’s musical training or just some other innate quality that brings on these skills—if this is real, and musical training allows one to hear more saliently and improve cognitive abilities, there is a great deal of potential in this study for the future of auditory research.

Sculpture and Engineering

JV: It may sound cliché, but engineers are the artists of science. People need to be seduced and intrigued by a product, and there is a need for those with an aesthetic background to step in, and bridge the gap between traditional manufacturing and product design and the arts. With initiatives like STEAM, visual arts are becoming less and less inaccessible to scientists and engineers.


Question 2: STEM + ART = STEAM. Why are the arts an important component to the traditional STEM educational model?

NU: Learning how to play an instrument teaches you how to learn other things. When one is an artist, they need to have a broader view of the world. As a musician, I need to understand the context of a piece. Violin has given me the building blocks to understand these bigger concepts, to become immersed in history and culture. BU is the ideal place to pursue both courses—the arts help me understand the bigger picture.

JV: Learning how to play an instrument teaches you how to learn other things. When one is an artist, they need to have a broader view of the world. As a musician, I need to understand the context of a piece. Violin has given me the building blocks to understand these bigger concepts, to become immersed in history and culture. BU is the ideal place to pursue both courses—the arts help me understand the bigger picture.

KC: Scientific study helped me better understand music, and musical training aided me in interpreting neuroscience. In a science lab, students ask unanswered questions, but in the music studio, you already know the result—the notes, the composition—but you have to figure out how to get there.

HS: I teach the electronic music composition course at BU, and am impressed by the diversity of students who enroll in the class. The Engineering students are always so excited to apply their technical knowledge to the creation of a new piece of music, and the Performance majors leave with a basic understanding of the principles of acoustics, and hopefully a better understanding of how their instruments produce sound. I studied both math and music as an undergrad. Being able to engage with students from tech and music is a great fit.

GF: There is so much value to cross-pollination on campus. Our Engineering students have grown up in a digital world. Not only do they expect design that is efficient and effective, it also needs to be comfortable. At the end of the day, they want someone to want to use it and interact with it. Our Singh Imagineering Lab is a sandbox for engineering experimentation. We help students take their ideas for innovations, and make them into a reality, giving them the resources to take on extracurricular engineering initiatives and think about new ways to address society challenges.


Question 3: How has BU helped you reach your educational goals?

JV: BU has worked out very well for me. KC I am double-majoring in Sculpture and Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Energy Technology. The program at CFA took me through the foundations of the fine arts, the process of relearning how to draw, and understanding the techniques of the old masters. I also had opportunities to meet and talk with visiting artists like Janet Echelman, who makes sculptures on a monumental scale. I’m hoping to get my Masters in Structural Engineering. I am interested in historical restoration work, and plan to use my varied background to retrofit historical buildings in ways that are energy-efficient.

KC: BU was the only place I could study with a Principal Tuba of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also study neuroscience. One thing I realized once I got here is that BU’s Sargent College has one of the best programs for Speech, Language, & Hearing research.

DC: When it comes down to it the odds that you’ll be an academic or researcher as a physicist are lower than you’d think. While it’s taking a great deal of self understanding and self motivation to pursue both degrees, I’m proving that it’s okay to do more than one thing. BU is giving me a well-rounded education, and while my goals come into focus over the next four years, I am putting myself into the best place for after graduation.


HS: Heather Stebbins (CFA ‘16)

Music Composition- Electronic Music

JV: Juliette Vandame (CFA ‘16, ENG ‘16)

Sculpture + Medical Engineering

KC: Kameron Clayton (CFA ‘15, CAS ‘15)

Tuba + Neuroscience

DC: Daniel Collins (CFA ‘19, CAS ‘19)

Music Composition + Physics

NU: Nathan Ullberg (CFA ‘18, CAS ‘18)

Violin + Physics

GF: Gretchen Fougere, College of Engineering

Associate Dean for Outreach + Diversity

Gretchen Fougere oversees the Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP). TISP recruits and trains the College’s most talented engineering majors to give interactive, fun presentations to 3,000 K-12 students that frame engineering as a way to explore design process, allowing students to see themselves as problem solvers and future leaders of technological innovation.


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