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STEM Education from Life

Article from IRAAA Special Issue on Science, Technology and Art
By Michele Y. Washington

A dynamic husband-and-wife team is creating innovative, technology-based projects that merge design, art, computing, and social justice. Both work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Ron Eglash is a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, and Audrey Bennett is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature and Communication.

Audrey Bennett’s efforts span scholarly research (in communication design theory); social activism (in participatory design that involves users in the design process); professional design for clients; and creative, graphic arts that reflects her Dartmouth College studio art background. She has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Yale University. Her work in participatory design led to a book, Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and the development of GLIDE: Global Interaction in Design, a biennial, virtual forum and research hub on our ever-changing world of design and technology.

The October 2010 virtual conference brought together a distinguished group of design educators, graduate students and researchers from across the globe in real time communication. Covering a broad range, the topics included the use of design solutions to help the indigenous, marginalized people of southern Mexico build business capacity; green design concepts in Asia; and the use of digital technologies in teaching and research in Pacific communities.

During the GLIDE 10, keynote presentation, Ron Eglash discussed his research on the vernacular knowledge systems of global, indigenous cultures and the need to dispel myths about these groups as being backwards, “primitive,” illiterate. He also discussed his world with African American, Puerto Rican and Native American cultures in the United States. In applying these systems for use in design and education. Eglash cautioned that sensitivity is required to make sure that these users are beneficial to the people who created them.

With a B.S. in cybernetics, an M.S. in systems engineering, and a Ph.D. in history of consciousness. Eglash has done trailblazing work in the area of ethnomathematics. This work includes research projects on African fractals (the patterns-within-patterns in African sculpture, architecture, textiles, hairstyles), the complex sand divination systems and rugs of American Indians.

In applying his research to education, Eglash has developed culturally specific design tools to teach education and high school students in the United States, including native communities in Alaska. He also has developed pilot projects in Ghana and Israel. The children learn math and computing through simulations of cultural practices and artifacts such as cornrow braiding, graffiti and beadwork.

Eglash emphasizes that they are not imposing math from the outside, rather they use the simulation to “translate,” the math and computing concepts that are already embedded in the practice. For example, in interviews with Shoshone beading artists and Navajo rug weavers he found specific algorithms for certain shapes; drummers of Latin Caribbean music were using equivalent of Least Common Multiple.

He cautions, however, against the assumption that children from these heritage cultures will automatically be drawn to them. “When we first tested our drumming software with Puerto Rican students, we were really proud of the research we had done to make sure it was specifically Puerto Rican music. But the kids said “Yeah, well, that’s our parents’ music. We like hip-hop.’ So the next version expanded the library of sounds to include turntable scratching and other effects. We’ve seen Yupik Eskimo kids doing cornrows hairstyle simulations, and African American kids who were more interested in using the native beadwork sims. The cultural content is a huge draw, but the kids will always surprise you in how they use it.”
Ron Eglash is the author of African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. His reports from the field are archived on the New York Times, “Scientist at Work,” blog. The video of his talks at TED, the forum for the world’s most original thinkers also is available on-line.

Audrey Bennett’s involvement in the cultural simulation work has ranged from developing the interface design and cultural content of the websites, to education research on how children can learn using these tools. She also has incorporated this work into her own artistic expressions. Her Shared Dreams and Star of My night posters, for example, depict the fractals of cornrow hairstyles and Manghetu ivory sculptures. Bridging the disciplines of fine art and graphic design, Bennett’s creative works on paper have been shown in juried exhibitions.
Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash are co-principal investigators for a five-year $2.9 million grant awarded in 2010 by the National Science Foundation’s Community-Situated Research program. The goal of the project is to produce “civic scientists” by creating new methods for directing cutting-edge research towards problems faced by low-income communities.
Michele Y. Washington is a design researcher/strategist and design critic who writes about design, culture, food, objects and indigenous culture, and more. Michele is also design critic for

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