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Arts, Media and Engineering students tackle the big 'why' questions

New interim director sees school as fusion of technology, humanities

man sitting in front of 3D printers
January 09, 2020

Why play games? Who benefits from artificial intelligence? How do you help society? These are some of the big-picture questions that students confront in Arizona State University's School of Arts, Media and Engineering, which is now a decade old.

Pavan Turaga, the new interim director of the school, a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said that students work on those issues through a curriculum that blends technical literacy with a critical eye.

“AME offers hybrid degree offerings that blend methods, practices and outcomes from diverse disciplines. At the undergraduate level, our program is called Digital Culture," he said.

“The ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are embedded into everything we do, not just how you do it,” said Turaga, associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and also in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

“If you want to go very deep into how you do something, we might say the best place for that is the school of engineering. Or if you want to ask critical questions, maybe try the humanities. We are that fusion place, where in every class, we ask the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ every time.”

That combination makes the school unique, said Turaga, who last year won a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research wearable technology.

“I’m an engineer so I emphasize how you do certain things but I always keep coming back to, ‘Let’s try a context where this will make sense. Who will use this technology and how do you apply it to society?’”

Turaga, who also is director of the Geometric Media Lab, answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: What are the important areas the school is addressing?

Answer: I see three things the school works around. One is artificial intelligence. Everyone asks, "What is AI for and what is its effect?" We have people trained in AI and humanities and we bring both perspectives to the table in education and research.

Second, we are looking at games. If you want one prototypical example of where engineering and design and media comes together, it is in games. Games are big business. There is this whole business of esports. We want to be at the forefront of asking difficult questions about the how, why and what. Why do you want to play a game? What is it for?

The third area is the idea of wearable technology. We have interest in a lot of different angles, including wearables for health, for art and performance, for fashion. We already have people creating new kinds of performance where they wear sensors on their bodies and as they dance, it drives the sound you’re hearing. People are asking the same question in fashion. You might have clothing with circuits that light up as you move around in different ways.

I look as these three areas as contemporary topics of broad interest where AME is a strong force.

We also have a lot of other exciting work that exists at the intersections and supports a wide array of work including augmented reality, sound-based art and science, food studies, responsive bio art, responsive environments, camera technology, citizen science and more.

Q: Where does the art come in?

A: The art that comes out of AME always has some technology basis. It’s the medium with which the art is created. Traditional media for art might be painting and sculpture and architecture. The medium that our artists work with include sensors and software. That’s the modus operandi.

We have great artists who are always creating new kinds of performance pieces that challenge what you can do, and technology becomes a performer in their piece. It’s a medium for them and it can also be a performer.

Q: Why is it important to include the humanities?

A: We have engineering, arts, design and humanities faculty. In many ways what we have is a university within a university. We are very well balanced.

In our humanities faculty, we have a philosopher and an English professor. The humanities faculty are interested in what they would refer to as critical theory — taking a very critical approach to all the fun things we talk about. They ask those hard questions about why we do this. Who does it benefit and who does it leave out? Who does it enrich and who does it impoverish?

They ask the questions that artists and engineers also like to engage with, but it’s the nature of our profession to emphasize production more than critical reflection. It’s important to have humanists in the loop to bring us back to look at our projects critically, if we are to have well-informed societal impact.

Q: What do the students learn and what kinds of career paths do they take?

A: Much of the coursework is project based. We have an end-of-semester showcase of student projects and in the recent showcase, a student built a virtual-reality game for policymakers in Tempe city government asking the question of ‘If I plant a tree in a specific location, what impact would it have on the comfort of a pedestrian?’ One student created a mannequin embedded with electronics to simulate an allergic reaction on the skin to show what hives look like and what happens when a peanut allergy kicks in. That could be used for training of nurses. It was a wholly staged experience. There’s always a performance piece. We had a project several years ago by a graduate student who created a system that learned the style of your percussion and improvised with you.

We have two or three different career paths we frequently see. They go into media design, which can include website design or graphics. Another is software development. Some of the skills sets they learn can be further developed in that field. We have some who go into art companies or sometimes become freelance artists. And many create their own startups, too.

Q: How is the School of Arts, Media and Engineering unique?

A: I come from a very traditional, linear engineering preparation. I never had any significant exposure to the arts. I came here with a very rigid attitude about what constitutes good research and what constitutes a good question and good impact. Then I was confronted with this diverse faculty coming in from nontraditional backgrounds asking even more important questions than I was asking and having bigger impact than I was having and yet doing work that was legible in their own disciplines. That was challenging.

Here, I saw that almost everybody was breaking silos. We had musicians writing science grants, dancers doing science. We had scientists interested in art as a way to ask difficult questions. It was remarkable to me.

I drafted a mission statement few years ago about what keeps me here. It’s a place where collaboration flows freely, which is what I think AME is about. And to get there, our mission should be to find value where few others are looking for it because that’s the only way you find unexpected answers.

Top photo: Associate Professor Pavan Turaga is the new interim director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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