My experience at the lab has come to a close. This post will provide a look back at the experience and the next will look at some documentation of my work from this summer.
Going right back to the premise of my experience, I’ve encountered several people (in the lab and outside of it) who seem unsure of why an artist would be interested in robotics. While digital media artists often work with robotic systems, this question is significant. The back and forth of digital/physical information is at its core a profound problem. Interacting with the physical world using digital media makes both sides richer. Digital systems become more complex (there are more sources of data), while robotics allows us to do things that we typically wouldn’t in the physical world, or it allows us to do them in new ways.
I found that an important component of understanding the lab was creating space for discourse between my own practice and the lab itself. This isn’t something that happened overnight. I naturally continued my artistic practice throughout my entire time there, but finding that link connecting the conceptual space of the lab and my work was significantly more involved. In part the work was comprised of teaching myself new languages (most notably, ROS and Python). But on another level it was a matter of observing and learning from the lab and the roboticists working there.
This gradual process is precisely the reason that the Maharam fellowship is so invaluable. A shorter or less rigorous experience wouldn’t have been able to provide me with the insight that this experience did. But, likewise, taking the approach of formal education wouldn’t have allowed me to freedom to connect the experience so naturally to my own practice.
I often thought of this experience as a three-part inquiry: I sought to better understand the culture of the lab, human-robot interaction, and the formal languages of robotics. The culture of the lab was surprising in its openness to and interest in the conceptual problems of robotics. Seeing ideas such as the agency of robot actors addressed from the perspective of fine art and a robotics lab is truly a rare opportunity. While I was largely teaching myself, the technical skills that I gained would have been next to impossible to glean so quickly working in a different environment. Stylistically there can be significant differences between artists and roboticists, and first hand experience is a fantastic catalyst. Lastly, my initial focus for the fellowship was what I called robot-society tension (more frequently referred to as human-robot interaction). Roboticists approach this problem with respect to the process of designing robotic systems, whereas artists may take a somewhat more all-over standpoint. Dialogues like that have given my experience this summer tremendous personal satisfaction.
Updates from my last post. I finally finished the fabrication of the new compressed earth block machine mould, which can produce interlocking blocks.
loaded the soil and started testing.
Becuase the block was still fragile at this stage, I made a pair of wooden aid for taking the fresh blocks out of the machine without damaging them.
Getting ready for constructing a demonstration wall.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the goal of the interlocking block is to construct a clean and neat wall, which does not expose any mortar gaps or need any extra plaster or paint on the outside. Furthermore, it saves the mason’s time for leveling and aligning the bricks during the constructing process.
The blocks are very easy to handle, and all the mortar is concealed inside the blocks.
As you can tell, the wall that is constructed by the new interlocking blocks looks much neater and tidier compared to the wall that is made by local fire-brick or the normal compressed earth block.
After finishing the interlocking block experiment, I just realized how little time I had left. Therefore, I started to set up an exhibition space for storing and demonstrating all the samples and materials I used for my experiments. All the samples are carefully labeled with detailed information so that if any student or teacher wants to repeat some of my experiments or make improvements, this space would be very helpful and convenient for them to start from where I left.
In the meantime, I also made a booklet that documents all my analyses, detailed drawings, experiments, instructions, and design process. I’m sure that with this document and the samples in the exhibition space, anyone can understand what I have done and what is the goal and value of this research.
I do understand that two months is too short for a research like this. I could not say that I finish this project. Instead, I would say that I completed the phase #1 of this project by setting up a resourceful foundation on such topic in Batticaloa. This foundation would definitely help me or anyone who has a similar interest in the future to develop this project.
You can view the digital booklet online:
Read more about my project here:
One more class (and blog post) to go! It’s been an exhausting and incredibly rewarding summer, but what I’ve accomplished in this short time only grazes the surface of what is possible… More on that in the last blog post— here’s what we’ve been up to in the meantime!
Class Eight was our first field trip! When I originally designed the curriculum back in June, there were a lot more field trips in the mix. Providence is known as “the Creative Capital”, and we certainly have many amazing local arts organizations. I think that introducing the women to these kinds of organizations will help them understand that we as a society do value the arts and consider them worthwhile. It also offers them the opportunity to visit some organizations that they might not encounter with DIIRI’s usual services, and be exposed to members of the Providence community that, again, they might not otherwise encounter with DIIRI. On top of all of that, it’s even better for the locals to see groups of women wearing hijabs and chattering in Arabic also enjoying what the community has to offer. Providence is already a fairly diverse place, and thanks to DIIRI it is still becoming more and more commonplace to encounter people from widely different cultures.
Since the start date of my classes kept getting pushed back, I unfortunately had less openings in the curriculum to go on field trips than I hoped. I really only had two days in my remaining classes that we could dedicate to leaving DIIRI, so I chose the Providence Children’s Museum and CityArts as the two places to visit. Since so many of the women in my class have children and because children’s museums are so wonderfully focused on making and playing, I thought that the women would really enjoy these unique places. I’d first encountered the Children’s Museum two years ago when I visited them leading a cohort of sixty RISD freshmen as part of the Pre-Orientation Service Experience program. It’s a really fun place to be, regardless of how old you are — it even has a huge green dragon perched on top of the building! There are rooms filled with both innocuous objects and crazy structures, and they are all used equally to simply play.
The mission of the Children’s Museum is “to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration”. When I was arranging the trip, Jessica (Exhibit Director at the Museum) told me that they are all about “open-ended, self-directed, self-motivated play”. When I asked them to do an activity with the women, in the spirit of show-not-tell (which is turning out to be the mantra of my summer), she told me that they could not do that (see previous quote), but that we would go through the museum together so that they would understand their environment as one that they can touch and play in. Everything in the Museum is very hands-on, and I wanted them to go crazy and just play!
It didn’t quite happen like that…but they did still have a good time. They were all fairly reserved as a group, but they did play with some of the exhibits as long as it wasn’t too physically involved. That’s understandable; they were adults in a children’s museum and in an environment they likely haven’t experienced before. But playing with the exhibits together, including one that involved wiring electricity, engaged them and they took a lot of photos. Even that was cool — they probably broadcasted how crazy America is to their social media network, judging by the laughter that into posing for those photos. All in all, we had fun!
…went on without me! Class Nine was the second class that I had to miss to attend the Institute for Design and Public Policy (IDPP). I introduce it more in my previous blog post, but this was an amazing opportunity that I could not pass up. Unlike the last time, in which I simply canceled class, this time I made sure that it happened regardless. The guest teacher was my close friend Tommy (who is also in Apparel), and the regular teacher (me) was Sagitta (a case worker at DIIRI)! Because the women had already been introduced to apparel techniques with Maha and Coleen, Tommy contributed another one of his skills: embroidery. Class Nine was spent learning how to make a variety of embroidery stitches (for use on their pillows) and talking about the resettlement process. I have not yet talked to Sagitta about how the class went (so more on that soon), but Tommy told me that we had an unusually small attendance that day. So, I’m not quite sure how effective the class in my absence was, but that might have just been extraneous circumstances interfering!
On my end, I was having a great time reimagining civics in Rhode Island at the IDPP. I was working side-by-side with Rhode Islander’s hailing from places that ranged from the RI Department of Health to the Center for Women and Enterprise. We were all learning about the process of design-thinking and how to apply it to better a community — in this case, it was about how to motivate RI citizens to come together for the greater good. Basically, we were trying to repair the relationship between the people and their government. We did this by pinpointing exactly what strengths we had as a state, what was lacking, and what about our civics could use re-designing. We broke into teams of ten, and it culminated with us presenting to the guest critics our grand vision for the future of Rhode Island via choreography, role-playing, and persuasive speeches. Because I am already a designer, I am already familiar with how to design-think, but the lessons that I received from guest speakers offer new insight into my process. In starting to design my senior thesis collection, I am going to test some of the visual thinking that I was exposed to in the IDPP. As the week went on, it also became increasingly clear to me that artists and designers really do think and problem-solve differently, and that only reaffirms my hopes for my future. But never before have I worked with so many people older than me and in wildly different fields — and it was incredible (I have never asked so many questions about insurance or trustee boards before in my life). I am definitely glad that I had this opportunity, and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning the power of design.
This time, the field trip was more successful. We visited CityArts, another organization in South Providence that provides “free professional art-based education and training to Providence youth in a fully developed community-based arts center that reflects, encourages, and promotes the rich ethnic diversity of Providence, our capital city”. Along with CityArts Program Coordinator Susana, I arranged for the women to work with two local artists decorating a wall in South Providence using ceramic relief tiles. We were invited to join the artists in making tiles to contribute to the mural, which will officially be on display in November. The art that we made at CityArts will be on view in Providence for a long time, and I think that is a wonderful way for the women to feel like a part of the community. The people at CityArts were also very eager to receive us, and I hope that DIIRI and CityArts will pursue this relationship in the future.
The women really enjoyed the process of kneading the clay and tracing designs into it. Some of the women made tiles of their hands, and some experimented with carving different shapes using the assorted tools on hand. The entire time we were there, the women and the artists talked about their respective cultures and what it is like resettling in a place like Providence. There was even a long discussion on hijabs! Everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and I loved that this trip had a unique twist of “giving back”. They even learned a new artistic skill that I could not have taught them!
This Thursday is our last class. My final blog post will be about that class (which will involve henna and paper marbling) and to sum up everything that I’ve learned from the Maharam. Until then!
Ideas, Ideas, Ideas
The last couple of weeks brought a huge wave of brainstorming, sketching, creating, and discussion with Jason and the team. As of last Friday, I have spoken to 48 different patients, still keeping up a wide age range. The more I spoke with patients, the bigger the game world within the Neuromotion platform grew in my head. What world should they encounter? What sort of problems? The original plan was to have the player go to different cities around the world during the game, but I kept thinking that the metagame could be a great opportunity to imbue something more engaging and creative, while still keeping the experience cohesive.
When I brought up this thought to Jason, he thought of how aside from the biofeedback component, helping children with emotional regulation often means teaching them necessary executive functions. After a thoughtful pause, he pondered, “What if each place the character could go to could teach different executive functions? It could be a good chance to teach some psychotherapy in the game.”
I ruminated on this thought for a few seconds, but the cams and cranks in Jason’s brain were already flickering a small light of inspiration. Without missing a beat, he slid over to his computer and e-mailed me an article about this subject, simply called Executive Functions by Adele Diamond, a professor from the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, Vancouver. She wrote:
Executive functions are “a collection of top-down control processes used when going on automatic or relying on instinct or intuition would be ill-advised, insufficient, or impossible.
For her, there were three core executive functions and an additional minor one. Jason’s current idea is that the mini-games could be categorized accordingly into each function: Cognitive Flexibility, Inhibitory Control, Working Memory, and Fluid Intelligence. That way, the games could be more organized and this would provide a bit more cohesion. Of course, play-testing would be the ultimate judge of this idea, but it’s a start!
To provide more brief definitions of these terms, I wrote up bullets for my own notes and for the rest of the team: Executive Functions
Though this metagame idea is farther down the road for the team, it’s important to think of the proceeding steps since the start-up constantly changes. Jason had me start thinking of how these worlds could look, and that we can talk through their accuracy and accessibility. I have to say, it made those hyper-conceptual RISD assignments have come to good use. Project tasks like “Please Illustrate De Ja Vu” and “Create a 12-dimensional self-portrait with gouache” actually DO resurface in the non-RISD world. This gives me hope, albeit a lasting migraine to wrap my head around these concepts while also keeping themes and illustrations understandable.
Aside from this brainstorming around the metagame, we came to the conclusion that there should be an avatar character that the child can play as. I would say pretty much all of the kids feel relatability and customization would be crucial to this game to connect them to the game (as well as having a large world of possibility to explore). If the avatar could have natural dialogue with the friend (coach) as well as with other characters, the experience can play out as a story and less as a one-way teaching tool. I think we can learn a lot when situations play out in front of us; for some reason, we can reflect better in the third person.
So in a sense, now friend character will become secondary to this avatar character. We’re now questioning how much the friend should intervene, and how much we can use this narrative framework to instill independence for our users. Jason and I had a brief discussion, and he thought that at this point, the avatar becomes the main character of this game. Thus, when I started to create final splash screens and home screen backgrounds, I questioned whether to represent an avatar as an independent traveler or have them accompanied by their friend.
Also the team has been helping to create other opportunities to introduce the avatar and friend into the beta game. We have a tutorial or “emotional warm-up” where players have to raise and then lower their heart-rate on the screen as well as a game-over screen where the friend, when appropriate or occasionally, could appear with advice.
It’s Not Your Fault
So it’s production mode until the end. With one more week left, I still plan to see more patients. I think this last week would be a valuable opportunity to ask some final big thinking questions. For some of the patients I met, I asked, “What would be something that we should definitely do in this game?” Then followed by, “What is definitely something we shouldn’t do?” One older boy thought that there should be a main lesson in the end, so there’s a working goal. A couple of 7 year-old girls both said that it would be important to have your character travel around and help other characters because that would help them feel better about themselves.
If I can share one response that resonated with me these past couple of weeks, it would be one experience in the Inpatient Unit with a teenage boy. He was the only person I interviewed that afternoon, mostly because I had to leave early to see another patient in the Outpatient Clinic.
“The g-game should teach you how to…get better…and …get out of the hospital.” I noticed the “Welcome to the [Inpatient Unit Name]” notebook on the table in front of him. He also said that the character you play as has to have a motivation, an ultimate goal to reach at the end of this game. “Also teach…skills, like coping…skills.”
He was a very soft-spoken person, but his face was very physically scarred and his eyes very tired. He was also shaking the entire time. Each time he had to stop to cough, he apologized. A couple of times, he was shaking so violently that he couldn’t verbalize his thought.
During a particularly strong episode, he tumbled through his words. “I’m s-sorry…it’s my med-medication tha-that’s…ma-making me…shake”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” At that moment, his quivering head slowly turned towards me, and I knew I had to look him square in the eye. It’s not your fault, I thought to myself. It’s not your fault. In a weird way, I thought he could hear me. I let him speak for about 40 minutes until I had to leave. Each time he coughed, I waited. Each time he needed to collect his thoughts, I waited more. In the beginning, I contemplated whether or not I should have turned to one of the nurses there to see if they needed to help him. But after those first couple of minutes of speaking with him, I realized that this boy was trying so so hard to get his thoughts across. He was very thoughtful, gave great critical feedback, and really valued the importance of having a character give you advice during the game, not a disembodied voice.
Very politely, he shook my hand at the end of the interview. “G-good luck.” I think he smiled a bit.
I smiled back. “Thank you so much. G-have a good day.” I nodded my head, thanked the nurse, and walked out with another nurse.
Should I have said ‘good luck’ back? Should I have even said ‘have a good day’ even? These phrases are so casual in day-to-day life, but in an inpatient unit, it’s just irony. I thought about this on my way to the Outpatient floor where I realized my patient cancelled and I had another hour or so until my next expected patient.
Not to get too philosophical here, but it’s moments like these where it’s important to separate the body from the mind. Though this boy had little control of his actions, his sharp, serious expression exclaimed his presence. It takes a little longer and a bit more patience to really see it, but it’s there. I had to give him time to speak and not impose anything which has been a constant anxiety for me when talking to patients. In a way, this experience has become less about finding information about what motivates these children, but more-so learning to present myself as an active listener and empathetic speaker. How can you really hold a conversation with a child, any child, and have them know that an adult is taking them seriously? Though I may be dressed in business casual and have a fancy hospital ID around my neck, I still want to get down to their level, which really becomes the task for any pediatric clinician at BCH. And there’s a lot more nuances than people think. Some kids have been easier to reach than others, but again, it’s part of the learning. I didn’t study any of these techniques or terminology; at that moment I can only reach them through small questions, a bit of joking, and a handful of writing and doodling.
But sometimes simplicity is the answer I suppose?
Hello again – time to update you all on the progress of my Maharam! At this point, summer is almost over, but I feel like I’ve barely grazed the surface of the possibilities of my project. I only have a couple weeks of classes left, and while I don’t think I have reached my ultimate project goal just yet, I have already learned a ridiculous amount from my time with DIIRI. Here is what we have been up to…
Class Four was hosted by my friend Natasha, a rising senior at RISD studying Film, Animation, and Video. Natasha does amazing illustrations and is a really fun person to be around, so I thought that she would be a perfect addition to my class. She was also excited, and we agreed to make puppets using paper, Sharpies, and brads. Natasha originally intended to also teach the women how to animate their puppets, but I had to draw the line there. As I discussed in my last post, showing not telling is the most effective way to communicate across cultural and language barriers, and teaching advanced computer programs does not even come close to the language capacity of our new neighbors.
Nonetheless, the women very much enjoyed the project and laughed the whole class. I made my high school puppet as a way to again demonstrate showing, not telling, and I explained how it represented something from home (I doubt that my school uniform from Pittsburgh, PA looked like theirs’). I suggested that they make a puppet wearing traditional dress from home, or a puppet of someone they knew from home, or even a pet from home. Anything to get them thinking about how to visually translate their past and to look forward to sharing it.
The whole idea of showing, not telling went over better this class – I was right to try to shift away from focusing on talking. This time, the women did differentiate their projects from each other (except for Sadia, who drew me!), but they were still staying within the “zone” of my example – a human puppet wearing particular clothing. I am not upset about this, because the results all varied widely (see below) and it might be something that is simply part of the learning process. Above all, they love working with their hands and learning new skills, but we are sharing less stories than I thought we would be. I have yet to decide whether or not that is something I should address – is it enough emotional catharsis to only create art and not talk about it openly? That goes against what I’ve learned at RISD about process and critique, but I think that this might be yet another usurping of a preconceived notion.
Class Five continued my new model of focusing the class on making. We didn’t even share “One Great Thing That Happened To Me Today” in the beginning of class, because everyone came in and just got down to work! This was a more comfortable environment for me – a group of women all sitting around a table cutting paper and coloring with pencils and chatting amongst each other (in Arabic, Spanish, and English). There was no pressure to do anything; we were all just spending time with each other making art. It was lovely.
We also gained a new addition to our class, a twelve-year-old girl named Aryana who is the daughter of DIIRI’s Director of Refugee Resettlement and Case Management. This is a truly intergenerational class now, and at least I’m not the youngest anymore! Class Five ended up running late, because everyone was so focused on finishing their puppets. As a result, we didn’t get a chance to share our work. So, while the last people were rushing their puppets, I asked the women to stand up next to the bulletin board and talk about it while people were working. This worked to an extent, but our sharing soon became derailed when other conversations were sparked in response to some people’s work. But, regardless, I am very pleased with the results, and I think that everyone enjoyed puppet-making!
Class Six was taught by both a friend and an old professor of mine: Coleen, one of my closest friends in Apparel at RISD, and Maha, the first professor I ever encountered in the Apparel department. I thought that Maha would be a wonderful teacher to my class because she also is from Syria and speaks Arabic. Not only that, but she creates awe-inspiring collections and teaches for a living. Coleen is working as an intern for Maha this summer, so she also joined us as an assistant. They ended up being a big hit, especially with the Arabic-speaking women.
After discussing it with Maha and Coleen, we decided to make pillows. Apparel construction is a very useful skill to have, but in the allotted time of 1.5 hours it is impossible to teach that (the idea of teaching patternmaking across language barriers is a nightmare to me). Maha demonstrated how to rip the muslin along the grain, how to effectively iron it, how to hand-stitch in a straight line, and how to turn it inside out and stuff it (all things she also taught me two years ago). Pillow-making was hard for a lot of people, and I don’t blame them! My first year in Apparel was very difficult as well. Maha is meticulous when it comes to construction, so she held my students (and me) to a much higher standard of quality than I do. While I think that is good in the long run and motivational to an extent, I will not be pushing quality as a priority because I feel like that would deter any newcomers to art. For me, art is more about the process rather than the product; anyone can learn how to be technically savvy, but the content is something else entirely. This project is all about introducing the arts into the lives of people who have undergone a great deal.
Class Seven was canceled because I have arrived at an interesting time in my summer. The Maharam is my central focus these three months, but I have also recently started a workshop run out of RISD’s Executive Education Department called The Institute for Design and Public Policy. For five days, I will be learning about the design-thinking process and how I can apply it to the public and private sector to redefine the idea of civic duty. So far, it is essentially me with a group of nineteen company executives who are all at least twenty years older than me listening to speakers trying to explain how artists think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m only two days in, and I’m overwhelmed with new information, but it was very interesting listening to artists try to make the design-thinking process accessible to non-creative thinkers. It is such an abstract concept (and kind of funny trying to articulate how my brain works), but it really makes clear to me the valuable role that artists have outside of the art world. The way we approach problem-solving and our experimental process that values failure as a means of growth is apparently unusual but revolutionary (especially within the government). I am very interested in this idea, and I plan on pursuing it after graduation. This Institute is also highly relevant to my work with DIIRI, so after I complete it I will share with you everything that is applicable!
I tried to find a way to keep the class going (playing with a homework assignment, open studio, guest teachers, field trips, etc), but in the end it was easier to communicate that the class was simply canceled. There is a second class that I have to miss for this Institute, but that day will be facilitated by Sagitta – the show must go on! And, to top it all off, I am finally getting the details finalized to introduce community partnerships – for Class Eight we will be visiting the Providence Children’s Museum to expose the women to arts organizations in the community and potential outlets for their children. A few classes later we will also be visiting CityArts! There is a lot going on, but then again, that is not unusual for the Maharam.
Until next time!
Dear everyone, I’m starting to blog. Hope you’ll all have me back.
As a newcomer to the divisive world of California groundwater management, starting to blog feels ill-advised. Like, gag-reflex ill-advised. Copy-pasting a secondhand condolence letter ill-advised. Wearing a heat-sensitive hypercolor shirt to a job interview ill-advised. High risk, subterraneously low reward. I’m not stalling. I’m savoring the end of my grace period.
This isn’t about shyness. If anything, boldness is to blame. I’ve got no qualms walking up to powerful person X, introducing myself, nodding with genuine empathy as they enumerate their frustrations with powerful person Y, and then, with equal aplomb, calling up Y to set a time to meet.
So far I’ve been able to find my words for the person sitting across from me. Blogging requires me to find words for more than one “you” at a time– words for both X and Y. But if it’s going to be worth a read it, I’ve got to dive into the very crux of X and Y’s differences while somehow honoring the legitimacy of both of their experiences. This doesn’t leave much low-hanging fruit. What if it’s all out of my reach?
To make matters worse, I’ve got something to lose: the benefit of the doubt.
Before I post this, I’m a blank slate. In a political climate where every affiliation brings with it a set of expectations, history and even past hurt, I’ve got no record. I let people know I’m a fellow at the California Institute for Water Resources putting together a story about the emotional landscape of groundwater regulation (more on this coming). For the most part, I’m perceived as harmless, impressionable and potentially useful. This relative anonymity has granted me access to a wonderfully wide swath of stakeholders. I’ve interviewed a dozen growers, ranchers, lobbyists, scientists, regulators, and activists. Sure, I’ve heard a few quips about absent political opponents. But on the whole, I’m blown away by the nuanced and nitty gritty work of bipartisanship I’ve seen underway.
So what am I so worried about? I’m on eggshells because I care about these conversations and the trust vested in me by the people I’ve spoken with. A lot. I want to get it right. But I’m a rookie and this is California water politics, so getting ‘it’ ‘right’ isn’t really on the table. I can’t make everyone happy, and, once I enter the conversation, I can’t go back to square one.
But the free pass I’m giving up was never really mine in the first place. These doors opened out of the generosity, grace, and optimism of others. As much as I’d like to take credit, I had little to do with it.
Luckily, the people I fear will find me two-faced are astute adults who know better than to think theirs is the only side I’ve heard. Many of their own careers hinge on their ability to cross ideological lines. Each has placed a stake in the debate, be it through their employment, affiliation, or writing. Each has still found ways to have meaningful conversations with people who disagree with them. Unlike my newbie free pass, they’ve earned this access over years of building their professional reputation.
Sooner or later, I’m going to have to earn my access as well.
To all I’ve interviewed so far: Thank you for your trust. I hope that what I do with your stories earns the kind of welcome you’ve given me on credit.
Eurecka!!! Louis Pasteur forgot to close the window to his laboratory and discovered penicillin. The pacemaker was invented when Wilson Greatbatch was working on a heart monitoring device and pulled out the wrong resistor. And the new, hybrid, paddle-board hull was created during a serendipitous moment in a buoyancy testing session.
Our high school class gathered to discuss the scale models for their paddle board designs. Most students created 1/10th scale prototypes while one group went with a 1/5th size. As we talked about how the features of each form would affect the performance of the board, we decided to conduct a test in water. The tide was out, which allowed us to find just the right tidal pool in which to conduct our tests. Everyone set their boards in the water and weighted them with water bottles. We knelt around our test-pool, pushing foam boards around and discussing how each reacts uniquely, but none contained just the right combination of qualities we were looking for. The flat boards were less likely to tip but were more difficult to propel. The v-shaped hull cut through the water but was easily tipped.
When the focus shifted from observation to the discussion, the kinesthetic students started playing with the boards like little kids playing with toy boats during bath time. One of the small v-shaped boards got lodged underneath the large flat-bottom board. Someone picked it up and said, “What if we align the small board down the center and see what it does?” Held by water tension, the boards stuck together. They placed the new design back in the water, gave it a shove, and EUREKA! We found the attributes we had been looking for, all along! Suddenly, a new energy and excitement came over the group and we spent the next two hours spooling up for the full-scale prototype.While the high school class continues to rock the design process, the marine class has been less successful. Work and duty schedules, island-wide travel restrictions for military personnel, and constrictive communication channels on base continue to inhibit young marines’ participation. Each week a new combination of students shows up, which makes continuity difficult to maintain. As I have pondered this development, I’ve wondered how to work around it. Rather than an eight-week program, one or two multiple-day intensive sessions might work better. If the program were to go all day over the weekend, and then during the next two evenings during the week day, scheduling may be more manageable. It is difficult to say for sure without trying it. A leader who is here long-term also has the advantage to scheduling sessions throughout the year. Although attendance is unpredictable, good conversations continue each week, and we all continue to learn from one another.
During some of my down time, I have been able to enjoy the island and local culture. Last week, I received news that a friend would be on island. I met him during a random pit-stop in Iowa, while on a road trip in 2003. Two or three years later, we randomly ran into one another, again, in Mainz, Germany. This time around, I heard through mutual friends that he was coming to Okinawa for a meeting. We caught up over Japanese curry for lunch, where I discovered that he collects pottery. I took him up to meet my good friend, Mitsunari Miyagi, who generously gave us a tour of his studio and 40 year old family kiln.
Miyagi-san is a traditional master potter. His grandfather was designated as a national living treasure for helping to save the traditional craft after WW II. When I previously lived in Okinawa, Miyagi-san was my neighbor. Even though we spoke very little of one another’s language, we grew to be good friends through art, baseball, and cooking (he’s a fan of bratwurst). One of my dreams is to open a gallery to show and sell the incredible pottery that Miyagi-san and other Okinawan artisans produce.
Having now spent some significant time in the lab and with the roboticists* here, I’ve found the relationship between robotics lab and artist’s studio utterly fascinating. On a personal level I’m much better acquainted with the latter, which makes the experience all the more edifying.
There’s an immediate danger of generalization: it does a horrible violence to group all roboticists together, just as it would to group all artists together. Mathematician G. H. Hardy, on the topic of Ramanujan, wrote that “all mathematicians think, at bottom, in the same kind of way.” This tends not to be a very useful approach for learning about a new environment, particularly one as multifaceted as a robotics lab. Roboticists themselves often come from a myriad of STEM backgrounds such as mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, and physics (I’ve met some people from each of those specialties here). But more than that, their ways of addressing problems, and their sense of what constitutes an interesting problem, varies between individuals in the same way it does for artists. On one level, some roboticists take a more conceptual/theory-based approach that attempts to address the nature of human/robot interactions, while others tend to focus on specific technical problems. This is never an absolute dichotomy, though, as it shouldn’t be! Those approaches are always on some level working concurrently.
In many ways this mirrors the way that artists work (particularly concerning technology and digital media), which I feel make the two commensurable. But there is a difference in emphasis that makes the interaction of the two truly galvanizing. The place of STEM in our culture tends to facilitate certain approaches to technical rigor and innovation. Artists who add to this discourse via STEAM have very different ways of facilitating that conceptual/technical dialogue, often with great fluency and nuance. Like roboticists, artists have a responsibility to develop the conceptual and technical aspects of their practice in tandem; it is how they do so that gives them a place in STEAM.
- Although spellchecking often disagrees, roboticist has a Wikipedia page, so it’s a real term!
In my last blog post I proposed that the “involvement of art, interactive-critical thinking and processing seem[s] a key interpretive element for larger topics of access, understanding and analyzing the purpose and effect of genetic engineering experiments.
After two additional weeks of reflection, observation and visual protocol interpretation drafts, I don’t believe that the “involvement of art, interactive-critical thinking and processing just seems a key interpretive element-
I avidly believe it is.
Up until two weeks ago, high school students that are taking part in the Genspace iGEM team had been coming to the lab to do serial dilution tests (test the survivability of e.coli after different time increments of dehydration followed by resuspension and plating onto agar- essentially, rehydrating e.coli samples to see how well they grow after different amounts of time being dehydrated as a basis of comparison to be executed with tardigrades-testing this water dwelling, eight legged micro animal’s ability to survive under dehydration conditions due to certain genes. Identifying and isolating these genes for potential use in the production of vaccines- allowing vaccines to retain effectiveness in the presence of heat when traveling to high temperature countries lacking access to certain vaccines is an ultimate goal of this project). They have also been isolating tardigrades (essentially extracting them from the water and moss they live in) and considering utilization of the CRISPR technique with the tardigrades. Twice a week and beginning two weeks ago, everyday, the high school students come to work on this project during which I participate and observe. Participate to understand protocol processes, teaching methods + mediums for teaching, how students are learning and perhaps integrate another viewpoint- ex: commenting on changes in transparency of agar interacting with bacterial colony growth which results in light (when the petri dish is held up to be seen more clearly) highlighting certain “focal” points of this circular, 9 ” radial composition.
Common responses to these comments I make include but are not limited to: smiles of acknowledgement for the comment (I find these a bit funny and endearing), comments like “oh yeah! cool!” and “huhs” followed by what I have hoped to be looks of pondering, pondering alternate methods of viewing physical aspects of results/protocol steps.
I muse about ideas and reactions to my visual interpretations within the lab context of collecting quantitative data for a “what does this mean and how will it have subsequent effects in the minute steps that add up to addressing a broader exploration/topic” versus a “what is this now and how can it be understood outside its current context” mindset.
How can alternate forms of interpretation such as poetry, process and visual similarities with patterns in literature, bee flight paths, people’s tracked habits, etc. patterns allow one step in an experiment, one petri dish, be appreciated and understood outside of the exclusively quantitative? However, that being said, one could argue the opposite- that all patterns are only able to become recognized as patterns due to their calculable, repetitive nature which allows us to quantify the image, action, anything; thus patterns fundamentally are the summarization of quantification? and can identified repetition ever be completely fixed? A habit, predicted flight behavior of bees, predicted and actual growth rate (number of colonies predicted for growth) and cell behavior with the uptake of certain plasmids, etc. exist as predictable as a pattern due to quantification but within a statistical range. I’ve come to better understand and believe in the idea of maximum 99.99% accuracy. Results and protocols in the lab are treated meticulously and done in repetition in order to set up conditions for accuracy however innumerable factors such as the nature of the human hand confirming human error, changes in environmental factors and the constant changing responses of living organisms means that prediction maintains variability, quantification exists within a range of error thus meaning pattern (summarized quantification) must be expressed through a range in order to be represented/explored/interpreted “accurately.” How do we interpret range in this context? I think of it as integrated multiplicity of interpretations. Multiple translations outside of numbers and observational text capitalizing on the 0.01% bias. So let me rephrase: How can considerations of quantification (pattern) be expanded to regularly necessitate interpretations besides numbers and observational text? In order to be “regular and intelligible form or sequence” as described by one definition in Oxford Dictionary, a pattern must undergo multiple forms of translation to be understood. Translation, interpretation and the infinite concept of languages, my friends.
During breaks in setting up experiments- waiting for new agar plates to cool and set, solutions to dehydrate, etc. I’ve asked a number of high school students about how they understand and interpret content taught in the lab- tardigrade anatomy, CRISPR basics, 3A Assembly protocols, etc and what “type” of learners they perceive themselves to be. One student noted the importance of color in cognitively differentiating content within written and drawn information. “Writing becomes a blob of lines and color that mixes together” in an undefined way in that student’s opinion. Intentional color and alternating use of visual and written content she agreed may help her better interpret what is being taught. Upon my suggestion of “icon” visuals to piece together protocols with, in conversation with a small group of students, one student acknowledged that while icons could potentially simplify protocol building and interpretation, icons = another language such as hieroglyphics which adds an additional step of time and translation. Additionally, protocols are different lab to lab (similar to cooking- similar or same end result, minute differences in protocol peppered throughout) – meaning standardization is difficult. Work initiated and being done by the Synthetic Biology Open Language, a project and initiative funded by the NSF, federal agencies and other sponsors, started a readable visual simplification of genetic parts, devices and systems. While the symbols facilitate interpretation of certain genetic parts well, they don’t address the next step of ‘protocol’ and piecing a protocol together. (below from http://sbolstandard.org/visual/)
I had a great talk with one of the cofounders of the lab around the evolution of interpretation and languages in synthetic biology. Essentially it’s all about the development of “languages” he said (as I have come to understand myself as well). In order to expand rate and quantity of not only synthetic biology lab work, but also any lab or “hand-crafted” work as he said, languages for facilitating this work must be expanded upon. With hand manipulation of a majority of elements in an experiment comes human error, problematic experiments, confusion on what went wrong and decreased rate of results. In order to increase accuracy and efficiency, attempts through standardization have resulted in the recent development of many programmed operating languages developing to be read and carried out by a computer. The day when a protocol can be electronically sent from one computer to another to then be carried out by that computer seems to be approaching. This development of automation points to potential increases in productivity, thus allowing not only for expansion of biotech companies and more engagement in the DIYBio realm due to decreased necessary time investment, but at a fundamental scale- this allows people to spend more time ideating, conceptualizing than carrying out repetitive protocol steps in the lab. I find these developments of programmed languages for synthetic biology exciting however potentially limiting? Will understanding of actions being carried out from a protocol by the computer and the meaning / effect of those actions be hindered by the ease of technology’s commanding role? And how does this type of development affect the public without extensive understanding of science least synthetic biology, their process of learning in the DIYBio, Synthetic Biology communities? Could these communities become perhaps commercialized in unwise ways because the language containing the knowledge about what’s happening to those cells is encrypted in a code that makes executing protocols concerningly easy (touch of a button). With generally ok national public engagement / understanding in the sciences, does this engage or disengage people? I feel the simultaneous development of visual languages is imperative to address educational aspects of the Synthetic Biology community- facilitating understanding while efficiency is increased.
While at Genspace, I’ve come to recognize difficulties it and other community bio-labs face as nonprofits- similar to familiar challenges for all nonprofits. A wonderful yet potentially difficult aspect of a space in which everyone interested in taking a class and becoming involved in the community is welcome, is that unsurprisingly multitudes of collaborations, projects and ideas come out of this space each year. However, as is such with “personal projects,”and funding challenges at times, the completion and documentation of ideas/projects sometimes lacks. A really exciting project started by Genspace’s 2014 iGEM team is Open Lab Blueprint, a site for aiding the creation of community bio-labs, including a proposal for a lab protocol platform. While started, it was never completed due momentum slowing after the competition deadline. I’m excited to be talking with a designer next week about the platform called “Bioglyphics” and plans for its future development.
This week’s title “That which I cannot build, I cannot understand” was heard in the lab and is a take off of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman’s quote: “What I cannot create, I cannot understand.”More insight on this quote to come in the next post.
Plans for upcoming week:
Continue protocol drawings and equipment use standards to make a booklet for beginners in community biolab classes such as the beginner biotech class at Genspace.
Write interpretations of lab protocols- free verse poetry.
Consider questions, prompts, topics to be considered as alternate methods of interpretation and integrate them in booklet.
[This post is late, but was definitely written to be posted on July 18—please keep this in mind as you read!]
For this post, I’d like to reflect on how heavily this experience has been marked by the theme of technology.
Seattle is tech. I pass by both an Apple and a Microsoft store on my way to shop for groceries. All of my college acquaintances who I’ve reconnected with are attached to the biggest names in tech. New people I meet ask me who I’m interning for this summer, Microsoft or Amazon. And hit recently by the phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the city feels especially strange to me as my commute to work—a 20 minute walk uphill to the University District—is marked by passing by crowds of students whose faces are determinedly glued to their iPhone screens.
The basement under the United Christian Church, where Books to Prisoners, is, however, a place frozen in time. Or is rather a place that eschews the concept of time altogether. Whatever happens above ground—another sports event, another shooting, a new Pokemon stop—in Books to Prisoners, the rhythm is the same. Michelle greets you when you walk in; sometimes Birch or Catherine at the packing station, ripping tape from the rolls and checking addresses. You sign in your name on a sheet attached to a clipboard and make your way through the boxes to the long tables, where a stacked row of letters wait. There aren’t any screens in the basement, save for the one on the Dell laptop that Michelle and the other staff members use to mark returns. If it’s a Thursday, the community jazz band is rehearsing in the auditorium next door. Dave from the Food Bank down the hall also would make an appearance to give us cupcakes and boxes of chocolate that they couldn’t distribute at the Food Bank, but they moved to their shiny, new location three blocks away in mid-June, so we don’t see Dave anymore.
If you are a first time volunteer, Michelle gives you an orientation at 6:30. You sit down on the long table together and Michelle walks you through why BTP exists—how there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States in facilities that don’t provide quality rehabilitation programs, that don’t maintain good recreational facilities, that can barely keep a library open longer than once a week. How programs like Books to Prisoners exist because prisoners want to build vocational skills, study for GED exams, and/or simply be able to give themselves something to occupy their minds with during the day, and the state of many facilities are such that they are unable to do so through the institution.
As a volunteer, your job is to read the letters that the prisoners write to Books to Prisoners, asking for books. You read the letter and then go through the library of the books—a motley collection of books donated over the years—and make your selection, keeping in mind the facility restrictions that have been written down for you on the envelope by a staff member. These restrictions are how prisons regulate the books coming in—many require that they all be paperback, but many also restrict the number of books that can be sent to a single prisoner at a time and the conditions of the book. (Some prisoners ask only for new books, which is ridiculous.)
Once you’ve made your selection, you weigh the books on the scales. Books to Prisoners sends its packages through the USPS, which charges according to package weight. In order to save postage and serve as many prisoners as it can, BTP can only send 1 to 2 pounds of books per package. And in order to ensure that each package is worth its postage, BTP asks its volunteers to try and round to the nearest pound, oftentimes by adding a smaller book to the selection (even if it’s not what the prisoner requests.)
“Chances are that even if the prisoner doesn’t like it, he/she can donate it to the prison library or pass it onto a friend,” Michelle reasons. “We have never gotten a complaint about getting an unsolicited book—how can we?”
The volunteer then fills out an invoice and mailing label, copying the address found on the letter by hand. He/she ties a rubber band around the package and then adds it to the pile of books that are then packaged by staff, who wrap them and deliver the books to the post office on Wednesdays.
“You guys should host gift-wrapping parties here,” I remember saying once.
“I mean, this already is gift-wrapping party,” Birch responded with a smile.
Birch is a staff member who had been with Books to Prisoners for a year and a half. He comes down least 10 hours a week to a space is open only 16 hours a week. He does not get paid for his work. I learned that he used to be in tech himself—that he had started a company with a classmate after college and after achieving a fair amount of success, realized that he was not happy. He quit his job and dedicated his time to volunteering full-time at various organizations. He is vegan and lives in a co-op.
I don’t mean to romanticize, but there’s something so striking about the way in his journey to find meaningful work—packing books in basements, lugging boxes in food banks—happen in the heart of tech, where so many of my undergraduate (and graduate) colleagues envision themselves finding success. And while the process of book packing is an admittedly slow one—the current backlog of letters date to May of this year—the process to me represents more than its service given to prisoners in need of reading material. The experience of volunteering at Books to Prisoners is also the experience of making out handwritten messages on lined paper, of running one’s fingers past book titles in the stacks, of writing addresses by hand in pen and taking in the names of streets and drives in states that they will remember because they didn’t copy-paste it with a button. To me, the experience represents a call for contact and for greater connection. This is what Books to Prisoners has taught me thus far.
(I’ve also included another version of the resource guide, meant to be printed out by volunteers and folded into a booklet for easier transport.)
(Updates on the book will be in the next post—for now, I’ll just leave with an email from Birch:)