Art and engineering might seem like two completely different worlds. But they shouldn't be. Combined, both fields can create valuable innovation. Here's the story of engineers making art.
This blogpost has been made in a collaboration between
Lab Agents, JC Velten and Mark Bunger.
Teaching innovation is done best when the teaching is innovative (pun intended), and INSEEC U., France’s leader in private higher education, has designed a program to do just that for French engineering students who come to Silicon Valley from INSEEC’s flagship engineering school, ECE. We’ve been fortunate to have been invited to be part of this exciting initiative. Here’s the story.
Time and again, thinking, playing, and making, more than skills, process, and books, drive innovation forward. It is those people who are trained to think in non-linear ways who are capable of making the connections that result in the application of technology in new ways to solve real problems. Fortunately, this type of thinking can be learned. INSEEC U., who is an Innovation Lab client in San Francisco, designed a program to do just that with groups of engineering students who come here to learn to innovate by creating art. Literally.
Ron Morris and Marianne Vila, at INSEEC U. in San Francisco, have united the thinking/playing/making we alluded to above to create an innovation curriculum focused on creating art. This popular program for budding engineers is driven by their passion for international education and their curiosity about how typical Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills can be enhanced by adding Arts to training that engineers receive (hence, STEAM).
As the director of the San Francisco campus of this prestigious school, Ron had the freedom and the local ecosystem to set up this popular program. Specifically, the INSEEC program brings engineering students from French campuses to San Francisco for five weeks. The goal: to design an interactive art project, which will be presented in a public art gallery setting at the end of the class. Every program has a theme. These themes, like “Frontiers” and “Imperfect” give direction and challenge the students to apply their technical skills in programming, welding, electronic circuit design, mechanical and structural engineering while they simultaneously explore issues of visual arts, music, culture, language, philosophy, and even spirituality – to create an object that perfect strangers will touch, toy with, evaluate, and hopefully be inspired by.
Lab Agents JC and Mark, along with Silicon Valley luminaries, play the roles of instructors and mentors to the teams. They bring their knowledge of the innovation process, from design thinking to creativity exercises, project management, and teambuilding, as well as their knowledge of the local ecosystem. Together with Ron and Marianne (also locals) they provide connections to mentors, quality checks, visibility, partners, and collaborators – all things that require local knowledge and networks. At the end of the process, a crowd of locals spends an evening enjoying the interaction with the objects, students, ideas, and each other – an intense culmination of more than a month’s work.
A new mindset
Ron’s goal is to get the students to apply their technical skills, but most importantly to instill a new mindset. “Their time here is part of their human adventure!” he enthuses. “For typically introverted, tech-focused engineering students, doing a public art show is not just exciting – it’s terrifying. They have to open up, see the limitations of their own culture, and change to work in the new ecosystem. At the same time, they feel something that’s very uncommon in France: the Silicon Valley openness and attitude. Locals don’t talk down to them as young people; they’re not treated as too immature or inexperienced to have something to contribute.”
It’s a very selective application process, and the school chooses students that not only have the technical ability but the focus and curiosity to get the most out of the program, and to give back to their fellow students and their community. More than 40% are women, which is a relatively good gender balance for an engineering program anywhere.
Courage + Curiosity
The students’ challenge is to come out of their shell and improve not just their English, but their courage (like networking skills) and their curiosity (their ability to explore and define their assignment on their own). “Where the only constraint they’re given in this program is a very open-ended topic, everything they’ve learned not just in engineering but in life comes to bear,” Ron says. “San Francisco is a uniquely suited place to have that first big vulnerable moment.” As the video below shows, the students describe the experience as enthusiastically as their director and mentors do.
Becoming a lifelong learner takes more than Coursera and a team offsite at the rock climbing gym. Many organizations – not just universities, but government, corporate, and even startups – have similar unexplored and untested boundaries that they can break through when the right combination of inspiration and process are put in place. People in midcareer might look at such a program with envy – taking 5 weeks in an exciting place where they can explore their abilities and build courage and skills they didn’t know they were capable of. But it’s never too late! Any organization can apply and adjust such a program for accelerating employee development, improving product innovation, developing a new market strategy and more.
Check out this video and imagine yourself re-beginning all over again, and again.