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Innovative Installations Showcase Engineers at The Lab @ Harvard

By Leah V. Schecter, Contributing Writer

Last Friday evening, Northwest Labs pulsed with activity. Loud music could be heard from Oxford Street and rain-drenched students and members of the public hurried toward the building. Awaiting them inside was The Lab @ Harvard’s Annual Fall Exhibition, a works-in-progress display of a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences curricular program that combines art, science, and design.

The Lab @ Harvard—founded by Engineering Professor David A. Edwards, who is now its Faculty Director—is both an academic program and a forum for innovation. Now in its third year, the program collaborated last spring with students who developed projects in Engineering Sciences 20: “How to Create Things & Have Them Matter.” Through the Lab @ Harvard program, students were given the opportunity to continue developing their projects from this course over the summer in Cape Town and at a weeklong summit in Paris.

The Fall Exhibition features 11 projects under the theme of “The Future of Water,” the premier of a short film by South African artist William Kentridge called “The Refusal of Time, Prologue–Anti-Mercator,” and a panel discussion on experiential education at Harvard with Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Cherry Murray, Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison, and Susan M. Dackerman, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints for the Harvard Art Museums.

Of the 11 interactive installations, Harvard undergraduates developed seven, while students in Paris developed two and students from Saudi Arabia developed another two. Though the Lab’s theme was “The Future of Water,” creativity was encouraged throughout the design process, and as a result many of the projects evolved in vastly different directions. Projects ranged from a hand-held water purification system that could be used in flood or tsunami disaster relief to a website called ArtLede, which features art made in response to current events.

Suelin Chen, the Director of The Lab @ Harvard said, “This is an opportunity to think of an idea and do it even if your idea flops, even if it implodes. It is about opening your mind a little more.” As a teaching fellow for Engineering Sciences 20, Chen aided the students in developing their ideas, some of which were featured in the evening’s display. “It is amazing to see the students come into the class and learn to trust themselves. They have come so far,” she said.

The four-person Harvard team behind a project entitled “Cable&Grain” took advantage of this fluid creative process. Veda Eswarappa ’12, Anugraha M. Raman ’12, Will C. Burke ’13, and Gary D. Carlson ’13 originally began a project to create an anti-desertification mat. Realizing their idea was not economically feasible, they later decided to create cellphone docking stations out of South African woodcarvings. They partnered with community art organizations in Cape Town to generate products that combine modern technology with traditional art.

The wide range of projects posed a challenge for Exhibition Designer Brandon Bird, who was charged with creating a cohesive experience. “The only way to do a project like this is for me to not have a concept and let the students guide it,” Bird said. “If I approached it with my own aesthetic it would fail.” This student collaboration resulted in a vibrant aesthetic experience for Friday evening’s visitors. The normally bare basement floor of Northwest Labs was transformed: the walls were lined with interactive installations around a central movie-screening center while drink stations were clustered in the corners and a DJ played music from the back. The low lighting combined with the thrum of the music created a modern, club-like ambiance fitting for the innovative artistic display of the installations. One student project titled “UseLESS”— a dissolvable plastic bag embedded with seeds—was displayed on a light table. Nearby, a bed of flowers was placed next to a bin full of plastic bags, representing an eco-friendly vision of UseLESS dissolvable bags. “In the end, we wanted to show people [a] glimpse into the future,” Bird said.

Edwards views the act of exhibiting as a crucial part of any creative process—even a scientific one. “We are constantly making hypotheses and curating those hypotheses for a particular audience ... In creative moments, [the] distinctions between artists, scientists, and designers disappear,” he said. “It is very exciting for creators of all kinds to find themselves in a situation where those barriers don’t exist.” He continued that The Lab’s exhibition was an opportunity for students to engage in dialogue with their peers and, in doing so, understand their own project development more deeply.

The future of The Lab @ Harvard is full of possibility. This is the first year that The Lab is formally a part of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Edwards sees the potential for even more unconventional exhibitions in 2012, when the theme will be “Virtual Worlds.” “It [must] remain a fun place for creators. Creators need to thrive, and great ideas need to come out,” he said, smiling as he suggested cafés or trees as next year’s potential venues.

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