Art as a Way of Knowing – Robert Semper

All right, for the final speaker of our session,
many of you are familiar with the extraordinary work of the San Francisco Exploratorium, particularly
in engaging the public with science through informal learning. Our next speaker has played
an enormous role in those efforts. He joined the Exploratorium in 1977 and now coordinates
the museum’s overall content related R&D development. His responsibilities include the museum’s
science and art development, public understanding of research activities, and creative application
development. He’s authored numerous articles and he has been the principal investigator
on projects that include developing new Internet resources, experiments using technology to
enhance the museum visitor experience and programs for teachers and museum educators.
His awards include being awarded a AAA S Fellowship in 2006 and the 2006 NSTA Faraday science
communicator award. And he received his PhD in solid-state physics just up I-95 at Johns
Hopkins University. Please welcome the Exploratorium’s Executive Associate Director and Director
of Laboratory, Robert Semper. [Applause]
>>Thanks very much. I’m going to set up my thing here and roll back to the first slide,
which is that one. It’s a pleasure to be here today, especially on pi day because many of
you may not know that pi day was invented at the Exploratorium in 1988 by Larry Shaw.
So this is the 30th anniversary and I think when I finish talking today you may realize
why places like the Exploratorium are places where pi day kinds of things get invented.
I want to talk today a little bit about really the notion of art as part of STEM education.
What can we learn using art, how can art help STEM education do its job? And I want to do
it through the lens of talking from the Exploratorium’s perspective using it as a case study, there
are many other case studies but I thought I would use that since that’s what I’m most
familiar with. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the history. I’m going to talk a
little bit about some of the examples that might illustrate how art actually works for
STEM education and something about lessons learned we’ve learned about how to make that
work. History. So in 1966 there was a conference
sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution up in Burlington Vermont on science, on museums
and education. Charles Blitzer organized it. It was an amazing conference and you can read
the book. At that conference they were many people attending, many museum people from
all over the United States. There was one person, Frank Oppenheimer, who was invited
to come and talk because he’d been involved in science education curriculum. And while
he was there he made this comment about science and art. He said that I think one of the things
that both science and art to do is to teach one to be aware of their surroundings and
they do this to a large extent by forcing one to pay attention to things that one has
learned to ignore. So at the very beginning of Frank’s work he was really kind of struck
by the notion that science and art had this relationship.
Why was Frank invited? He was invited to that conference because he had been working on
curriculum development. Frank had an interesting career. He had worked with his brother J Robert
Oppenheimer on the Manhattan project. He was a cosmic array physicist, he got tangled up
in the politics of the McCarthy era. He therefore lost his job in Minnesota, became a rancher
in Colorado, started teaching high school. The high school students in his tiny town
became the science fair winners for Colorado. He got rehabilitated by the faculty at the
University of Colorado and instead of doing physics anymore he got into science education.
So he, like many of the scientists of the time got involved in curriculum development,
and he joined the team that was working on elementary science study in Boston, one of
Zacharias’s teams, which ultimately became part of the education development core. And
this was a very interesting project because it was elementary science. And this was a
project that involved actually focusing on what kids, how kids develop. What they really
learn. Here’s a famous quote by Philip Morrison about their work. They were really interested
in adapting an elemental curriculum that was really about kids and their adventure and
their discovery of the world. Just to point out, this curriculum project
had not only scientists. It was run by a philosopher, by David Hawkins. It had Charles and Ray Eames,
designers who were into integral part and a lot of the curriculum projects had filmmakers.
This one didn’t, but some of the others like PSFC, Ricky Leecock the [Maisleys] brothers,
these were artists and others working on science curriculum that had a profound impact on the
curriculum at the time. Frank came back from that conference and realized
that actually museums might be an interesting thing to actually start. He had been a person
who actually loved museums, grew up in New York with them, but he had the idea of finding
that he could actually create a museum that actually would allow the public to explore
the world on their own and to have their own experience. And he wrote this paper in 1967
where he coined the word Exploratorium and he talked about starting a museum of science,
art and human perception. And in that paper he talked about doing it in a very particular
way. He talked about why it’s important to talk about science and technology, but he
had this theory about it which is really important and I think fundamental to the work that the
Exploratorium did. He had this idea of say, talking not only
about the science of optics and light and refraction or the science of sound and waves
and resonance, but also talking about seeing and hearing and about the eye and the ear
and about perception and about art and music. In other words, it was the external world
and the internal world of the visitor or the person learning that was important to him.
And that profound set of ideas I think carried forward into the Exploratorium from it’s very
very beginning. So he set about building this museum. He found
a building in San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a big empty building, 100,000
ft.². He, like all scientists figured, well I have to build my own instrument. So he built
a shop to build the exhibits but that took time. So, in the meantime he actually had
to fill up the space and he wrote letters to everybody saying give me something to fill
up my space. So NASA gave him a space capsule, the Mercury capsule. Slack gave him a piece
of the linear accelerator that was being built at Stanford at the time. Someone gave him
this glider, the Montgomery glider and he sort of stuffed all this in the building and
he started building exhibits in the summer of 1969, 49 years ago. It was hot. They opened
the door. People walked in and he said I guess we are open. That’s how that place started.
[Laughter]>>But of course museums, he needed to get
publicity. He wanted to get stuff. So he was writing all of the country getting ideas and
one of the letters came back to the Smithsonian, to a young woman working at the Smithsonian
who said, you know there’s a show at the Corcoran gallery, it’s closing, called cybernetic serendipity.
Maybe that show would be interesting for the Exploratorium. So he came out to see the show,
he really liked it. The staff at the Corcoran packed it into a truck and they drove it across
country and with a few mishaps brought the show to San Francisco where it opened in October
of 1969. The show was there for about two years and finally it was packed up and sent
back to wherever, England and other places, however a number of exhibits stayed and I’ll
talk about that in a minute. But what was interesting about the show is this show actually
was the launching I think of the Exploratorium in a very deep sense. It was an incredibly
popular show. It was a show that actually was a major hit. The story was over 100,000
visitors saw it in the first year. Now, it was free, so you know, counting free I’m not
sure that is the number but it was an enormously popular show. This is an article in the San
Francisco Chronicle. It was joined by other experiments in art and science. Some of the
West Coast EAT people worked on that show and it actually established the stage for
Exploratorium experience, the notion that artists as well as science were investigating
the world and the products of their inquiry could become interesting to the public at
large. So this became really the fundamental part of the Exploratorium’s experience and
I would argue shaped the exhibit development and shaped all of the educational projects
that got developed during that time. Now when I got there in 77 there was still
about eight exhibits left over from the show that were in different places and here are
four of them that actually are not any longer at the Exploratorium or part of the original
collection, but have since been disbanded or reverted back to their makers. I think
it’s interesting that these exhibits were all exhibits of the show were really about
the relationship of patterns, the relationships of systems. Some of the were electronic like
magnet TV or side bands. Some of them we talked about earlier about Entrochats by Frank Molina
which was really moving objects, motorized driven objects that move behind screens. We
talked a little bit about that before. This piece by Dioximorekinesis was just really
lines of string and light but they were all about patterns and I always found it interesting
that those were the exhibits that were kept as part of the collection out of the many
that were there originally. And then there were three or four that actually
have stayed through our collection, you can see today although in slightly different form
and I thought I’d show them to you just to give you this connection to the history of
cybernetic serendipity. This was a piece called cybernetic introspective pattern classifier
by Christopher Evans, who was doing research, perceptual research on vision. It was an exhibit
that blasted a very bright pattern into your retina which you then managed, because of
after images to see for a minute or two afterward and it had a profoundly interesting effect,
because as you have this on your retina it was fastened based on the image that you saw
at the time but then you would look at a distance or close up, your eye was accommodating but
this pattern was burned on your retina so you had this very interesting interesting
experience of having a fixed object but have it displayed on this accommodation vision
that you were watching. And it became a very interesting exhibit. We now call it After
Image. It’s been completely designed or redesigned or modified. But it’s actually still part
of our core light collection. Another one, which is called the pendulum
drawing machine, was a pattern, a drawing machine that was made by the artist who basically
was looking and multiaxis drawing. This was a pendulum flat that you put paper on that
would actually twist in two directions because of its motion, the way it was hanging. And
this we now call the drawing board. It’s one of the most popular exhibits still at the
Exploratorium, 49 or in fact I always point to this exhibit and point out it’s the oldest
exhibit, at least a couple years before the Exploratorium was even founded.
Albert. Albert 1967 was an object that actually tracked you. Its head rotated as you walked
around and it used sensors to watch where you are and it’s still on display in our lobby
at the Exploratorium, although as you can see it’s been much modified over the years
into a much more different kind of sculptural peace.
And finally we recently acquired some of the pictures from Ivan Moskowitz’s monograph.
We didn’t have the monograph but we have the photographs or actual images painted by this
device on the floor of the museum. So after this exhibition left and after the
great experience that people had, it really became part of the DNA of the Exploratorium
to continue to use art in the world and the work that it did. And this happened in a number
of ways. A number of artists would work on, would be artists in residence or we had staff
artists and probably out of the 650 exhibits at least 100 have been built by artists who’ve
worked at the Exploratorium either as employees or as contributors.
We most recently opened Doug Hollis’s Archimedes, which is a sound dish exhibit. We opened it
last year and Doug had worked on an art exhibit, probably one of the earliest artists in residence
that we ever had at the museum. But here are some other examples. Fog Bridge by Fujiko
Nakaya, who basically did a number of fog art installations and now it has become a
signature piece for the Exploratorium. Along with exhibits that were built by artists,
we had artists discussing their processes and we had a lot of people talking about their
work for a series of projects called speaking of music where composers came and talked about
the process of composing. And that was a point where you could not actually talk about the
process of composing very easily in a three-dimensional exhibit. So the program part became an essential
part of the Exploratorium experience, to have people talk about their work, talk about their
adventures, talk about their path of inquiry, so that the public could understand that better.
And then also there was in grown programs, for example Cinema Arts program was started,
where we actually use films, not only science films, but films about nature that help people
understand the world around them and show experimentation that artists have done to
explore the world of nature. And then public programs by artists, a very strong thread
of public programs, which has become the foundation of our Thursday night programming now where
we have 2 to 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 30 come to the Exploratorium every
Thursday night, having an experience that is very similar to the field trips that happened
during the day. But very much infused by art that’s happening in the Bay Area.
So, if I wanted to sort of explore a little bit about how this art actually furthers STEM
education goals, I want to do a few examples. There’s many I could have chosen. But I really
want to talk a little bit about how this actually supports some of the goals of engagement,
about inquiry and about confidence. And so I’m going to run through a couple examples
of current projects, current exhibits on the floor. There’s many I could have chosen.
This is an exhibit that was just recently done by Nina Katchadourian called floater
theater. She got intrigued by the idea of floaters. These are the things in your eye
that you sometimes see and they flick around, you know, bits of blood vessel dendritus and
other things in your eye that float in front of your vision. She got intrigued with them,
where they came from, started an investigation as many artists do, following kind of an inquiry
experience and created this exhibit called floating theater where what she has done is
added a score, actually a performance, and so you see floaters, you are in front of a
white screen, you start to see the floaters and with the music you actually start to feel
like you are choreographing the floaters into an experience.
I like to use this as an example about engagement. I mean, if I built this exhibit I would have
built, in fact we had one, a white screen you look at it and you see your floaters.
We can talk about why they are. But here it became a dramatic piece. It became a piece
of engagement and many many different parts, both visually, orally, emotionally. It just
became a fun experience. And I think that role that she had or as artists have to actually
use many of the dimensions when they are presenting things, not only the idea, but presenting
them visually or orally, or with audio is really an important feature that they add
to the experience. And she, it is just a really great piece.
Another example is Mildred Howard. Mildred Howard is in the center of this picture. Mildred
Howard joined the Institute for Inquiry, which is our program teaching elementary teachers
and the teachers of teachers, teachers of elementary teachers how to teach science better
in the classroom. And Mildred worked in that program for a number of years. She’s a visual
artist from Oakland, and she actually deeply informed the experiences that people had,
not only because she was a great investigator, but because she had this talent of aesthetics
that made the experience that much richer, whether it was light, whether it was with
balancing objects, that she used her professional artist skills to create a much more engaging
experience for the teachers and for the teachers of teachers. And that extends I think to the
material. And if you look at so much educational material is bereft of any kind of aesthetic
experience. I think the notion of using artists more to actually help with curriculum is a
key idea, kind of what happened back in the 60s that we talked about earlier.
If you want to move more into sort of inquiry, we recently had an exhibit by Theo Jansen
Strandbeest. I don’t know if you know Theo’s work, he builds these very large objects made
out of PVC pipe in Ogden in the Netherlands and he puts them on the beach and he has over
the years assembled the pieces so they start to be wind driven, self-propelled beach beasts,
strand beasts. And every year he invents a new version of them based on what worked or
didn’t work the last year and in a sense he has an evolutionary practice. And if you really
look at it he’s mimicking natural evolution in many respects. And when he talks about
it he doesn’t say I’m mimicking. He says I’m evolving my work. I’m evolving this with this
activity. But you see in the exhibit the evolution, and you begin to think about evolution. You
begin to think about what is it about natural evolution. What is it about natural evolution.
Why do these things happen? Just by this experience. So his inquiry passage becomes an interesting
educational experience. The one I want to talk about a little bit
more is Bob Miller. Bob Miller was an artist, he trained as a scientist, he was an artist
in San Francisco, joined the Exploratorium in the early 70s. And he was fascinated by
light. And he was, just did a lot of experimentation, inquiry experience about light. He was of
self taught pretty much about light. He did not study a lot of optics and he came up with
a theory about light that actually worked with images and he developed something called
the image walk that talked about his theory. This is a picture of him on the ground and
actually with me a number of years ago doing this with him. He actually figured out a way
to talk about light from the notion of an image. In other words, he would say that if
you look anywhere what you are seeing on a wall or on my hand is just a whole series
of images of all the light sources in the room. When you teach physics about light,
you usually start with the light source, a lens and a screen. He sort of worked the problem
backwards. He started with a screen, worked it back into the light source and I would
go on these light walks with him, with my physics training, trying to figure out if
in fact what he was talking about was real or true or worked or was pedagogically strong
and I realized that actually it was an incredibly strong theory. It was perfectly correct. It
worked. It solved all of the same issues about physics pedagogy that you might be teaching,
and it was a way that actually worked with people where they were, because his examples
were all based on stuff you saw outside or stuff you saw inside with mirrors and other
kinds of pinholes and that sort of thing. And he showed some things that I would never
have thought of. For example, he invented, he showed you could have a negative pinhole.
We talk positive pinholes, we do that with cameras. He made negative pinholes by putting
little black dots on Plexiglas screens and showing that you have inverse images of the
light source with a negative pinhole. Things that I would not have thought of with my usual
didactic teaching of physics. So these are ways where the inquiry part that
artists take can lead to a richer experience and a thoughtful experience for students and
for the general public. And then once in a while artists actually
help scientists directly. And this is an exhibit called friendship acrobatic troupe by Carl
Cheng that was a tank of water with pistons that produced compressed air and they would
produce marvelous kind of bubbles, these sort of, because it was lit from the top it had
a kind of mercury, that kind of shimmer of mercury and some of them would produce actually
toroids. And some of the toroids would have little bubbles passing through them that let
you track actually the toroidal motion and in looking at one of these stuff we realized
we could actually visualize something that had been written about, which is toroidal
motion that was in various scientific literature. And so we actually published this letter to
the editor in Nature, it’s my only Nature publication, on toroidal bubbles and it was
about the visualization and that you could actually see the properties of the swirling
around it. And there’s many examples of artists work which have actually explicated, visualized
things that then scientists have been able to follow on.
So, all of this was sort of the backdrop of the Exploratorium and in 2011 we had a conference
sponsored by the National Science Foundation called art as a way of knowing and my colleagues,
Marina McDougall is in the room here and Bronwyn Bevan, who was here yesterday and I were able
to produce a conference that actually studied this notion of art as a way of knowing, which
for the Exploratorium is an important idea. We are an educational institution. We are
not an art museum. We are not a science museum. We are kind of a museum if you want of artists
and scientists but not a traditional museum. We are an educational institution and so the
art in the Exploratorium is really about a way of knowing, and that was an important
concept for this conference. And you can get and read the, I put down here the URL, but
you can just go to the and look for this paper.
In the summary of the discussions there were three or four points brought out. This was
again about five years ago. One was that there are opportunities for artists to move out
of the studio and into the lab, that there was very much of a zeitgeist going on of having
artists move into the laboratory, kind of a little bit like what was happening in the
60s with the EAT project or some of the other projects that flourished in the late 60s.
That artists were positioned to, as central components of the maker and hacker cultures.
And I think if you look at those cultures today you realize there’s an incredible amount
of art related to them. Two minutes. Okay I think we will roll through. Artists are
engaged in public exploration. They actually help the public understand not only art, but
the worlds that they live in. And art is really getting integrated into
the authentic assessment for students and teachers as well. Really starting to get into
the educational movement. So the conference had actually four conclusions.
One is that there was a need to sort of engage the public in understanding art as a cultural
tool. That there was any to document, we have heard that today, document about learning
and meaning making interdisciplinary context. We need better research to understand the
ways in which art helps learning, and I posited a few ideas, but we need more work on that.
And there is a need to do policy around interdisciplinary. All the stuff that really we were talking
about these last two days. So finally I want to mention one last thing,
which is this notion finally of competence and confidence. Frank would say that the Exploratorium,
the whole point is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the
world around them. In other words, more than understanding the concepts, more than learning
some facts, it was really about being confident they could understand, and some of you may
know that in more recent times there’s been talk about creativity competence, what it
means to have capacity to be creative, how to be innovative. Some of the work from Tom
and David Kelly, IDEO at Stanford dSchool really points to that. Or the notion of the
art of tinkering, the fact that confidence and doing things with your hands means that
you have a better chance to be exploring the world at large.
So I would say the lessons learned, I’ve got three of them and I will end. One is, it’s
really critical to engage with art as a coequal part in the work, not just as an add-on. And
sometimes even the scientists in the world I see art that is really just, we’ve got an
art piece, we put it out here, maybe it was representational, whatever. But there is no
art within the place. It’s not really about art. It’s not effectively about artists as
thinkers. It has to be coequal, not as an add-on.
The research project is as important as the work itself. It’s really about inquiry, about
the experience that artists do to explore the world that’s most useful I think to the
educational endeavor that we have in STEM education.
And finally, we’ve found that having artists participate as full-time members of your educational
team is critical. We have artists on staff as well as visiting artists. They make us
think differently. They have to be part and parcel of the entire enterprise, not as a
separate part. So I hope I’ve convinced you that there is a role for art in STEM education.
I think there is more to learn. There’s more need to incorporate more artists in the work
that we do and I enjoy this conference because I think we are forming a community to do that
work. Thank you very much. [Applause]

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