Designing the Artist Engineer

The marriage of engineering and art can produce stunning results. The latest proof is found at MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit, where a team from Caltech has folded strands of DNA into various geometric shapes ranging from smiley faces to the alphabet, each so small that billions could fit into a drop of water. The Sketch Furniture team has devised a process in which users “sketch” an object in space using a pointer, and a machine creates a plastic replica, translating the drawing into an actual physical object.

These innovative designs are the product of people who have creative and analytical skills that are both highly developed. Unfortunately, Columbia is failing to provide an environment for its engineering students to develop these skills. Today, SEAS students cannot take studio art or musical performance classes for credit. In contrast, students in the College, Barnard, and GS can receive full credit.

Columbia boasts that its curriculum produces well-rounded engineers, but refusing to give students credit for art courses contradicts that claim. In fact, training in the arts helps develop one of the most fundamental abilities in the field of engineering—creativity. The process of designing a new product is similar to creating an original art piece. The engineer forms a novel solution out of existing scientific principles while the artist creates an original work using existing media. Both involve a process of inspiration and experimental application, and both result in a new creation.
While engineering classes give students a set of analytical tools, they generally do not foster the creative skill necessary for true innovation. Further education in the visual arts and music is often a necessity for engineers to thrive in industry.

If I learned anything in that glorious course called Gateway Lab, it was that engineers need to be able to work smoothly in teams. In the real world, teams are almost never comprised solely of engineers. When creating new products, engineers must collaborate with designers and artists. I have often heard designers say that the engineers with whom they work simply do not have enough experience in visual design techniques to truly communicate and collaborate with them. The few engineers who do have this understanding are highly sought-after. Having skills in both the technical and aesthetic aspects of engineering is essential for quality design.

Many SEAS students understand this intuitively. They arrive on campus passionate about fine arts and music or curious about exploring those fields only to find that their degree requirements make following such passions nearly impossible. Denying credit for visual arts and music courses deters students from taking them. Exploring the arts becomes a liability rather than an opportunity.

Columbia pays lip service to these values by advertising the ever-increasing list of minors in the liberal arts for engineers. Yet, the University fails to mention that fine arts and musical performance classes do not register on the SEAS academic radar. An engineer minoring in architecture must take analytical courses like Building Design and Quantitative Techniques but will not get credit for studio design courses.
For Columbia to remain a top-notch engineering school, it is essential that its curriculum maintain its scientific and mathematical rigor. At the same time, engineering students must not be penalized when they seek to become “bilingual” in the language of art or design. Many of our peer institutions, including Stanford and Cornell, already allow engineering students to take music and visual arts classes as non-technical electives. Columbia must join them in helping students to develop not just as engineers but also as creative thinkers.

The author is a sophomore in the school of Engineering and Applied Science majoring in Biomedical Engineering.

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