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The Art Of Engineering
November 1, 2006

On a college campus, it would be difficult to find two subjects more different from each other than art and engineering. Yet on the campus of the University of South Florida, one engineering professor responsible for teaching classes about differential equations and electromagnetism has created a popular course that merges his research world with the world of fine art.

Incorporating the works of the masters, the tools of artists and the perspective of engineers, David Snider has merged the two subjects into a single attempt to broaden the perspectives of his students and open their eyes to a world they might otherwise bypass.

“In college I avoided art classes because I felt out of place and ill prepared,” said Prof. Snider. “Later, after I had gained an appreciation for all the pleasures art can provide, I decided to design an art introduction where the technology students are empowered, rather than handicapped. The fine-art students in the class are simultaneously amused and awed by the unexpected viewpoints expressed by the techies.”

Prof. Snider draws students in with topics that span from general interest–such as early theories of light and the structure of the eye–to more engineer-centric topics including a detailed exploration of the wave nature of light and the creation of cameras, from pinhole to digital.

The course, which presents nearly 100 artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol, even dabbles in new technologies researchers have been using to identify forgeries or to determine if a work was created by a famous artist or an understudy.

“The course gives engineering students the opportunity to think more creatively about the impact of their field and the relationship between the arts and engineering,” said Sue Kemnitzer, the deputy division director for education in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Engineering Education and Centers. ”We also expect that more students with these broader interests will be attracted to engineering careers.”

In addition to the hands-on laboratories where students create pinhole cameras or attempt to dissect modern technologies, the classroom side of the course uses language familiar to the engineers and reinforces engineering principles regarding optics, electromagnetism and signal processing.

“In some ways,” he added, “my course is like an optics review, where the laboratory is the art museum.”

He has had an impact. At the start of the course, he asks his students to identify roughly 40 artworks, and the class average is usually five or six. By the end of the semester, students are scoring 80 percent while being tested on 100 artworks from 50 artists.

“At first,” said Prof. Snider, “many of the students’ attitudes are coarse and unsophisticated: ‘All Renaissance paintings look alike. Somebody actually paid money for this drawing? Are we going to study any porn? ’But most of the great artists are acquired tastes, like scotch or retsina, and it’s so rewarding to watch their level of sophistication and appreciation mature. I’m teaching them a new form of recreation, giving them something to do in their off time when their jobs take them to new cities.”

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