THE OPENLAB NETWORK FACILITATES INNOVATIVE, CREATIVE AND COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH WITH ART, COMMUNITY, DESIGN, TECHNOLOGY, AND SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ

Coordinator: Jennifer Parker
Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department, co-founded and is Executive Director of the OpenLab Network, as well as Affiliate Faculty of Digital Arts & New Media

Obstacle1: Jennifer Parker, an art professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was trying to help Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an astrophysics professor, assist a student on an interdisciplinary project when she realized that neither professor had permission to use the other department’s studios, labs, or facilities. Obstacle 2: Amy Bower, an art history student, and Jack O’Neill, a business student, each with interests in sustainability, had an idea for a convertible sleeping pad that could be used by artists, scientists in the field, for low-income residents of developing countries, and even for survivors of natural disasters. But neither had a place to make their prototype or equipment to test their design.
The solution to these obstacles was creation of the OpenLab Network, which Parker and Ramirez-Ruiz co-founded in 2010. At its first Summer Institute in 2011, faculty and graduate students across disciplines shared space, expertise, creative ideas, and differing modes of discovery on projects with multiple outcomes. Parker describes the Institute as working like a movie crew with each team member bringing their particular expertise to a task that will produce a joint outcome. Scientists propose a concept, and work with artists with backgrounds such as photography, digital art, filmmaking, and sculpture, in four- to seven-member teams.

OpenLab’s first projects debuted at an exposition at the Tech Museum of San Jose, CA, where visitors could learn about hard-to-understand concepts through these science/art projects – for instance, playing a game where they step off Earth and hurl a star into the cosmos to learn about black holes. Sudhu Terwari, a graduate student in music and art, was part of a team that developed a three-dimensional zoetrope to make visual the collision between the moon and a sister moon that orbited Earth. Working with the interplay across disciplines, artists were challenged to take real-world problems and develop solutions that would engage viewers and participants, while science faculty and students learned how to ask and answer questions that had never occurred to them where the problem existed only on paper or in the lab.
The work has the additional advantage of involving in STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds, for whom the unthreatening, “playful” atmosphere of the interdisciplinary collaborations provides both an entrée to science and scientific questioning, and a sense of the range of applications of STEM fields.

Compared to the expense of many scientific undertakings, this new perspective is also replicable across other institutions and internationally, and cost-effective. The inaugural year of the Summer Institute was supported by existing facilities (with broadened access), with some contribution from NSF, NASA, the Packard Foundation, the UCSC Arts Division, and the UCSC Foundation. National and international funding bodies can foster these cross-discipline “transfusions,” as Parker calls the benefit researchers receive, by encouraging STEAM projects and tailoring application timelines and requirements to fit. The ultimate benefit is not only to students, and to the public efforts to understand science, but to science itself. Working with artists has opened new dimensions, says Ramirez-Ruiz, changing the way he thinks, and changing the way he visualizes scientific phenomena, how we arrive at “discovery,” and the world itself.

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