Art and science project highlights importance of not blowing off STEAM

Contact: Erin Flynn

A view through a sculpture featuring Kalamazoo River water at musicians who created an original composition from data collected.

KALAMAZOO, Mich—Whether art imitates life or life imitates art is a question for philosophers to hash out. But that art imitates chemistry is no question in a unique collaboration at Western Michigan University.

The STEAM Collaboration project, funded in part by a grant from the Chemical Measurement and Instrumentation program of the National Science Foundation's Chemistry Division, brings together students from the Gwen Frostic School of Art, WMU School of Music and Department of Chemistry. It challenges the groups to develop original works of art based on analysis by mass spectrometry.

"This is, as far as I know, the only event of its kind where students from visual art, music composition and chemistry collaborate so closely, in the sense that both the chemists and artists are involved throughout the entire process" says Dr. Andre Venter, an associate professor of chemistry who leads the project alongside Patrick Wilson, an associate professor of art and Dr. Lisa Coons, an assistant professor of composition.

A decade since the Obama administration announced a program called Educate to Innovate—aimed at helping students excel in science, technology, engineering and math—emphasis remains on STEM fields and STEM education. But many educators now also advocate for expanding the acronym to STEAM, emphasizing the importance of arts in preparing students for careers and helping spur discovery and innovation.

"STEM students are not well prepared for the creative needs that a future career in science requires," says Venter. "Too often our science students are trained to follow recipes, yet, to quote Albert Einstein, 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.'"


Students in lab coats analyze samples with a mass spectrometer.

Students (from left) Andrew Simpkins, Ethan Fegan and Emma Somers use mass spectrometry to analyze a a tomatillo sample.

The STEAM Collaboration allows students to conceptualize an experiment, interpret data into art and ultimately present that art in a community exhibition. For the most recent group of participants, the projects began in fall 2018 by choosing a local material to analyze. From river water to honey to coffee beans, students collected samples and then went to work in a chemistry lab.

"The students communicate with each other to bring the science to the artist and to bring the creative process to the science students," says Venter. "They earn a greater appreciation of each discipline."

"I had never been in a lab like that. It was interesting," says Evgeniya Kozhevnikova, a jazz composition master's student and Fulbright Scholar from Russia. "Chemistry was always something I didn't understand quite well."

The students use desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, which essentially employs a tiny power-washing device to spray molecules off of materials and determine their molecular masses. The teams of students analyze the data to determine the molecules in the sample. Then, they create pieces inspired by those numbers.

Jared Tubbs, a music composition master's student from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, worked in a group that analyzed raw honey. 

A student composer works on his piece, "Hive."

Jared Tubbs adjusts transducers on his group's art installation, "Hive."

"I was trying to interpret the data and find ways to make it sound interesting," Tubbs says. "I ended up plugging it into a program where it generated sound waves off of different data points, which generated a certain frequency. After combining them it created this buzzing noise."

Garrett Auzins, the visual artist Tubbs collaborated with, also used the concept of a beehive to create a sculpture out of cardboard, chicken wire, beeswax and other natural materials. He called it a metaphor for the production of honey.  Tubbs placed transducers on the sculpture itself, generating the vibrations to create his composition.

The opportunity to explore new technology and incorporate math and science into music is a welcome challenge for Tubbs.

"I've used Morse code in my pieces, now I've used spectrograph data and all sorts of things," Tubbs says. "I'm actually working on a piece right now where the performer has a gyroscope on their hand that interprets data and sends it to different effects."


Two art installations on display.

At the end of the project, students present their work to the community during Art Hop, Kalamazoo's monthly celebration of arts featuring exhibits and events. Venter says it gives students an opportunity to creatively and effectively communicate scientific knowledge, which he calls a necessary and important tool for success in science and other fields.

"Very few opportunities exist for students to communicate with and interact with the broader community—surprisingly even for artists, but especially for the chemists," Venter says. "They help address science literacy and stimulate interest in actual and timely issues within the Kalamazoo community."

Students also learn a lot from each other.

"It opens minds a lot and gives new perspectives, which is something that you don't necessarily do working in the comfortable bubble that you have," says Kozhevnikova. "It wasn't the kind of music I would necessarily write, but it gave me some new ideas from outside."

Andrew Simpkins, a chemistry student from Jackson, also enjoyed getting pushed out of his comfort zone.

"I got a lot out of it," says Simpkins, whose group analyzed pesticides in locally grown tomatillos. "I had a good group. We all collaborated and bounced ideas off each other. I would have never walked into the music department at all if I never worked with them."

Andrew Simpkins points at his painting which uses red and blue paint to signify pesticides found in tomatillos.

Andrew Simpkins, right, explains how his group created a painting from analysis of a tomatillo sample.

"The collaboration bridges gaps in understanding between people," says Emma Somers, a painting and biology student from Lapeer, who created a painting from Simpkins' chemical analysis. "Getting to work with a composer and someone in the science department was really interesting to get their perspectives."

Expanding perspectives, Venter says, is a major goal of the collaboration.

"I hope that students will exit the project with a new appreciation for the value of art and science respectively, and that they will feel empowered and have greater confidence to communicate with each other and the public."

While it may have broadened his perspective, Simpkins says he doesn't foresee an art career in the future.

"I'll stick to drawing molecules and charts!"

For more news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.