Creativity and Collaboration: Revisiting Cybernetic Serendipity

Posted by
James Bell
May 17, 2018

“A physician, an engineer, a dancer and an artist walked into a bar…….and she ordered a drink…”

So began Robert Root-Bernstein’s talk on How Arts, Crafts, and Design Training Benefits STEMM Professionals: The Evidence and Its Limitations at the National Academy of Sciences Colloquium called Creativity and Collaboration: Revisiting Cybernetic Serendipity this past March 13-14. Bernstein ultimately revealed that he was using this well-worn joke format to describe Mae Jemison, who is also an astronaut and hence an exemplar of a STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine) professional with a transdisciplinary background, transdisciplinarity being a theme that the colloquium returned to frequently over the course of two days.



The colloquium used the 50th anniversary of a museum exhibit called Cybernetic Serendipity -which celebrated how individual artists could creatively transform new technologies and computers into art machines- as the foundation for asking questions now, in a different context, about how creativity and collaboration are impacting practice and research across fields. The Colloquium also previewed the just-released National Academies Press report The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Branches from the Same Tree in a keynote lecture by David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Organized by Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland (Chair), Maneesh Agrawala, Stanford University, Alyssa Goodman, Harvard University, Youngmoo Kim, Drexel University and Roger Malina, University of Texas, Dallas and Executive Editor of Leonardo, the program included researchers and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, and through the participation of students who also attended a pre-colloquium Student Fellows Symposium, an infusion of cutting edge thinking and questions that informed the Q & A and coffee breaks. Videos of all of the talks can be found on the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia YouTube channel here.

The 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was curated by Jasia Reichardt. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue which has long been out of print but on this 50th anniversary will be reprinted by Studio International magazine. Reichardt gave an opening talk at the colloquium about how she developed the exhibition. Interestingly, it traveled to only two museums in the US- The Annex of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  and The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Cybernetic Serendipity was on display for the the first two years of the museum’s existence and helped “set the stage for the Exploratorium experience,” in the words of Exploratorium Associate Director Rob Semper, who spoke on day two of the Colloquium. His presentation titled, Art as a Way of Knowing, traced how art has been an integral part of the process of inquiry that the Exploratorium has continued to investigate through conferences, fellowships, residencies, exhibits and programs.

Fresh ideas at the Colloquium

The Creativity and Collaboration colloquium sessions presented a wide range of ways to think about nurturing creativity and how collaborations can benefit from interdisciplinary (involving interaction among the disciplines) and transdisciplinary (holistic) approaches, new platforms, and the role of formal, informal and higher education. The acronyms STEM, STEAM and STEMM and the “breaking down of siloes” refrain that seems to be everywhere these days emerged throughout the program with a particular twist, in this context, on the importance of design (aka STEAM+D). Ben Shneiderman called for the creation of a National Academy of Design by the year 2065 (to complement Sciences, Engineering and Medicine), stating that “Designers teach a fresh way of thinking that calls for heightened sensitivity to human needs, greater empathy for the people who use technology, and increased willingness to engage  with stakeholders as partners and participants.”

The spirit of provocation and calls to action continued with Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina’s introduction to the session called Cybernetic Serendipity: A Catalyst for Research Breakthroughs during which he made a plea for “enabling hybrids and amphibian individuals” who will “work on things that we want to see in the future”. As a case study in what those aspirations might look like Sara Diamond from OCAD University, Toronto took the audience on a whirlwind tour of projects and works from OCAD (and beyond), where as president she is currently overseeing  an increase in STEM course offerings from 20 to 40%, in her Modeling New Knowledges- An Inclusive STEAM + D Imperative talk.

NSF AISL projects featured in two sessions

Two Colloquium sessions featured projects from the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program of the (U.S.) National Science Foundation (NSF). Data Visualization Literacy: Research and Tools that Advance Public Understanding of Scientific Data (award #1713567) is a one-year-old Innovations in Development project that is a collaboration among partners at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, the New York Hall of Science and Indiana University. Driven by the assumption that, in the digital information age, being able to create and interpret data visualizations is an important literacy for the public, the project is learning through formative evaluation that visitors to these institutions find it challenging to name, read or interpret common visualization data. Using a new platform called xMacroscope that allows visitors to create, view, understand and interact with different data sets using diverse visualization types, beginning with a Sportsology exhibit, this project aspires to define, measure and advance data visualization literacy.

In the session called “Citizen Science Speaks to Research: New Paradigms, New Agendas and Broader Impacts” Jennifer Preece from the University of Maryland, herself an AISL Principal Investigator, moderated talks by Laura Trouille from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on Tales from the Zooniverse: Enabling Serendipity and Creativity through Citizen Science, and by Julia Parrish from the University of Washington in Seattle on The Promise of Citizen Science: Scale, Technology, Agency and Saving the World. Preece spoke of how drones, phones and satellite images have changed the landscape of what’s possible in community-driven projects that adapt technology, citing projects like eBird, iNaturalist and her own NatureNet: Technology for Community Environmental Learning project (award #1423338). Trouille observed that good citizen science projects “create the comfort level to be curious publicly, which is one the major barriers to discovery” and reported that since its inception Zooniverse has yielded quantities of data beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. With NSF AISL funding she and her colleagues are developing a new approach to using citizen science and technology informed by learning research in a project called U!Scientist (award# 1713425) that will engage museum visitors in learning about the process of science, shape attitudes towards STEM and develop science identity.

In speaking about the COASSTal Communities of Science project (award #1322820), Parrish reminded the audience that "science is a team sport". She described how her own trained team of observers walk the beaches and record bird deaths by species and marine debris. In addition to recording data, these observers also engage in science communication by speaking to coworkers, friends and families, reporters and politicians, and natural resource managers about the causes of these bird deaths and associated patterns (such as increases in plankton from ocean warming).

A new report from the National Academies

Building on the transdisciplinary, collaboratory themes that framed these and the other colloquium sessions, the event provided the National Academies with an opportunity to preview the recently –released The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches From the Same Tree consensus report mentioned above, which examines the evidence behind the assertion that educational programs that mutually integrate learning experiences in the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) lead to improved educational and career outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students. In his keynote lecture, Secretary of the Smithsonian, David Skorton outlined how the report explores evidence regarding the value of a more holistic education for all students, integrating more STEMM curricula and labs into the academic programs of students majoring in the humanities and arts and integrating the arts and humanities into the coursework for students pursuing STEMM degrees.

Highlights for the informal STEM and science engagement fields

Those who design, evaluate and research informal STEM learning or science engagement settings and experiences may find Chapter 3, What is Integration? interesting, particularly the helpful distinctions between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary integration outlined there (p. 63-73). Another potentially useful excerpt is the essay and diagram on pages 37-38 in Chapter 2, Higher Education and the Demands of the Twenty-First Century that make the case for the need for graduates to be adaptable, lifelong learners and shows census evidence that even college graduates with STEM degrees may change job roles and professions many times during their working life in ways that don’t directly align with their studies. And because it is such a rapidly growing area of activity, the multiple mentions of makerspaces as contexts for integrative learning experiences in Chapter 6, The Effects of Integration on Students at the Undergraduate Level (p. 107-140) will be of current relevance to informal STEM education practitioners. The full report is available for free download from the National Academies Press here and an extensive review of the Student Symposium and Colloquium that appeared in Studio International’s online magazine can be found here.