ES20 Cultivates Scientific Artistry

Courtesy The Laboratory at Harvard

The “Sockett,” a soccer ball that stores energy when kicked, is the project of a former ES20 student. It is displayed here in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building.

Harvard’s Engineering Sciences 20: “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter” is a course that, above all, invokes the power of imagination. Though the course has existed at Harvard for almost a decade, it has gradually evolved from a course primarily focused on foundational biotechnology to an engineering course focused on the creative process.

Atypical of most science classes, Engineering Sciences 20 (ES20) encourages its young engineers to synthesize their science with an artistic vision. “We are often encouraged to focus on the outcome of art [and] science. But the ephemeral intermediate outcome and the evolving dynamic process is inevitably more full of potential...Having limited value as product alone, art and science are liberated when they are focused on as pure process,” says Engineering Professor David A. Edwards, who has taught several iterations of ES20 over the years. This year, he is co-teaching the course with Engineering Professor Robert D. Howe.

At first, it may seem that this course was mislabeled. After all, ES20 requires no background in engineering, and encourages students to think outside the conventional boundaries of the introductory engineering class. “When a student comes to us thinking that they have everything figured out, we’ll generally push them to work on an idea that they think is good—but [are] not yet sure how they’re going to make that happen,” says Beth Altringer, one of the ES20 teaching fellows. As a result, the course has been a springboard for international collaborations and various prototypes that past students now feature around the world.

Part of what makes ES20 so groundbreaking is its connection to The Laboratory at Harvard. The Laboratory—principally an exhibition and meeting space for student idea development within and between the arts and sciences—is currently in its second year of operation. Suelin Chen, Director of The Laboratory, emphasizes that the “Idea Translation” component of the Laboratory allows ES20’s students to pursue innovative work. Each year, the Idea Translation program extends funding to ES20 students’ projects and helps them build prototypes to be featured in an annual exhibition. One project from ES20 that was featured in last year’s exhibition was the “Soccket,” a soccer ball that stores energy when kicked. Students featured in the exhibition can then develop their projects in summer workshops around the world: the Idea Translation program is based here in Cambridge and at Le Laboratoire in Paris, but there are partner sites developing in Africa, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. The international aspect of this class encourages students to feel as if their ideas can have real global impact.

Each year, ES20 focuses on a central theme: this year, the theme is water. “In a way, water is everything. Water is life, water is clouds, water is all around. It’s a pretty open ended theme, but that’s the point,” says Edwards. Students split into small groups according to a previously agreed upon ‘problem’ relating to the central theme, and from there, develop their ideas independently. Often, these student projects diverge in fascinating directions. Currently, Alexandre J. Terrien ’11’s group is developing a form of organic, reusable packaging that can dissolve into something useful as soon as somebody consumes what is inside. Terrien is a student fellow at the Laboratory and blogs about its projects in conjunction with the Laboratory’s partner “art-science labs” around the world.

ES20 is much more than a Harvard prerequisite science course, with Q scores and concentration credit garnering constant attention. This course brings together art and science to help its students determine what really matters in each of their project designs. “Contrary to popular belief, engineers are very creative people. The word ‘engineer’ is derived from the word ‘ingenuity’ ...  engineers are actually ingenious people,” says Howe. Indeed, this course has demonstrated that sparking the imaginations of its student engineers is as important as building their technical foundations.