In the glassblowing studio in the basement of Steidle building, a dozen students sit on folding chairs with their artist sketch books on their laps, watching as Devon Franceschi, the glassblowing instructor, draws on the concrete floor with a piece of chalk.
"This is your blowpipe here," she says, sketching a few lines quickly on the floor. "Here is the blown piece. You want to transfer this to your punti, so you can work the other end." The undergraduates in MatSE 497a/Art 497g (Introduction to Glassblowing Techniques and Materials) copy the patterns into their sketch books, along with a few notes.
The students appear to be a mixture of straight-arrow engineers from the Materials Science and Engineering department and free-spirited creative types from the School of Visual Arts. Or so it seems at first glance. One of the goals of this class is to blur some of the hard and fast lines between the arts and science in order to shape more creative engineers and more analytical artists.
"Most people are mesmerized by glassblowing," says glass scientist Carlo Pantano, who teaches the science portion of the course. "I created this course to get students interested in science. This gives me a chance to get art students, who generally have limited background in science but are interested in glass and ceramics, more interested in the science. It also gives me a chance to get students starting out in engineering and even chemistry interested in materials. It's why I offer it to freshmen and sophomores, to capture them when they're young."
Pantano believes that forging a connection between art and science will make for better engineers. "With engineering design the way we teach it in school, we don't ever really get into the visual or aesthetic; it's all function, function," he says. "With artists, one of my observations has been that they learn more from the material than we do as scientists and engineers. Take paper, for example: they cut it; they wet it; they mold it; they do all these things with it, and they learn from it. They work with a material until they have a mastery of it. Engineers don't do that so well. We always assume we have to make a better piece of paper. I'd like to get my engineering students to learn more from the material itself, rather than learning solely from measurements or theory about the material."
"The core curriculum at Penn State is very interdisciplinary," says art instructor Sara Young. "Our dean ( Richard Durst, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture) has said that these students will all change their jobs seven to ten times in a lifetime, so why not prepare them in college to have access to lots of different disciplines? My interest is in giving science students a more creative way of looking at the work that they are doing and letting my art students get to know the reality of the materials they're working with."
Both the scientist and the artist feel their own students need the broader experience this type of class offers. Young says, "For art students, they have a repertoire of another material under their belts. They know what the material can do and may apply it in some other area. Concepts can be transposed. A material vocabulary is like a dictionary that can help them solve problems in other areas. I want them to have not just the art skills, but the science."
Devon Franceschi, a senior research technologist in the Materials Research Institute, is the glassblowing instructor, guiding the students into the physically demanding skill of glassmaking. "The goal of this course is the interface of glass science and glass blowing techniques, using the traditional Venetian process. Carlo talks about the why and how of glass, including the composition of the many types of glass, while Sara gives the art history lectures, starting with the volcanic origins of glass to the invention of the blowpipe to Venetian art glass."
Devon demonstrates the techniques she has recently outlined on the floor. A small blob of molten glass is "gathered" from the red-hot 2100 degrees F. furnace on the tip of a long hollow metal rod called a blowpipe. She carries the pipe over to a metal table to begin work, rotating the pipe to keep the glass from oozing toward the floor. After shaping the glass on the table, she reheats the cooling glass in a smaller furnace known as the glory hole. The glass must be reheated frequently, because molten glass begins to "freeze" into a solid at about 900 degrees.
At a bench next to a water bucket in which wooden paddles are soaking, art instructor Sara Young kneels to blow into the long hollow rod as Devon shapes the glass with the cup-shaped paddles. The glassblowers work in pairs, one shaping as the other blows gently into the blowpipe. The hot glass develops a bubble that expands quickly. After the demonstration is finished, it's the students' turn.
"This is a groundbreaking course for us," says Gunalan Nadarajan, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Architecture. "When I was the dean of visual arts in Singapore, I realized that a lot of the things going on at an art college, the creative and analytical processes, were similar and comparable to what was going on in the sciences. I've worked with genetic engineers and artists who were developing new protein sequences, with what they call bioartists, who are working with new biological materials, and with artists developing works in robotics. Part of my interest in coming to Penn State is that it is such an amazing research institution, with such a range of activities. In practically every breakthrough science area, you can find someone who is doing work in it.
"When I arrived here the first people I talked to were scientists like Carlo. I told him I was interested in working with new materials as they developed, creating situations where artists and designers and architects had the chance to work with new materials well before they became commercialized and entered the public domain. There is a huge lag between the actual development of these materials and the time artists have a chance to get their hands on them. For architects, the use of glass is crucial. What if architects had a chance to work with experimental glasses and related materials? In their attempts to use these materials, they could come back to the scientists with unforeseen problems and possible solutions."
If we are no longer a product-based society but instead knowledge-based, then the University has not yet made the adjustment, says Nadarajan. "When scientists create an object, they have set ways that they will look at what can be done with that object. But artists are used to thinking about the next thing, how else can we define contemporary experience? Industry, too, if they are focusing on existing needs, will be perpetually caught up in a cycle of fulfilling current needs, but what about the needs we haven't thought of yet? Consider that just ten years ago the notion of people carrying around cell phones everywhere was virtually unthinkable. The trick for industries is to create preemptive research projects and invest in a certain amount of creative strategic research. Not just research that meets presently existing needs. How can we create scientists who will think about the next thing, who will develop new possibilities, new niches?"
Nadarajan sees his job as building bridges between the arts and sciences. Today he is sitting in a room full of arts faculty he has invited to hear a presentation by a scientist about a recent breakthrough in nanotechnology. Ayusman Sen, the head of Penn State's chemistry department, is demonstrating the world's first artificial nanomotor powered by chemical catalysis. Sen is hoping to interest the arts faculty in a collaboration for which he has received funding from the National Science Foundation.
Sen has brought a video in which small white lines, composite nanorods made of gold and platinum, speed across the screen like tiny motorboats. The metallic rods, smaller than the wavelength of light, are only visible due to the diffusion of light waves. The arts faculty watches and occasionally interrupts with perceptive questions that show at least a layman's knowledge of nano science.
After the demonstration is over, one of the artists asks Sen how the catalytic motor might be used in real life.
"Well, you could make a gear, like this," Sen answers, clicking on a video of a tiny, spinning catalytic gear, in itself a remarkable example of microengineering.
But the artist seems unimpressed with the answer. Why use a revolutionary breakthrough to create smaller versions of gears and switches, things we already understand? she seems to be thinking.
"It is important in this type of collaboration that both the artists and the scientists see some kind of benefit," Nadarajan explains. "The artist wanting to do something beautiful is not enough. The scientist should learn something that they might otherwise not know about."
The culminating event of the introductory glassblowing course is the exhibition. Each student is required to complete three projects, which will be displayed in a group show. Last semester, the class took over the Patterson gallery on campus, cleaning up the exhibit space, giving the walls a fresh coat of white paint, and hanging or displaying their creations.
Badri Rangarajan, a Ph.D. student in materials science, stands next to his creation, which he describes as "solar energy storage as conceptual art." Although he is not pushing any envelopes in the art sense, he has clearly learned something about the material. "For people working in glass science, this class would give them hands on experience and knowledge," he offers.
The art and science students were put in pairs in the glassblowing studio. Taryn McMahon, a senior art student, calls working with science students "an interesting dynamic."
"Their topics were different," she says. "Mostly geared toward concepts."
To have a class with artists and engineers, you have to be open to other people's ideas, Pantano says of the benefits of mixing the arts and science. "I didn't realize the degree to which art students critique each other face to face, which is not so very common in the science and engineering world. We propose ideas and designs and put them into brown envelopes, and somebody evaluates our idea and sends it back to us, but seldom with direct or active dialog. Nobody ever tells us why we didn't get the funding. To actually stand right next to somebody and say 'I don't get what you're doing here' or 'I think it would be better to do this,' is a tough thing, but it makes for a more open-minded approach."
This collaboration between art and science is just beginning at Penn State. The next objective is to create a space, both an intellectual space and a physical room, where architects and materials scientists and engineers can meet. Pantano says "We've got people developing new materials and we've got people who know what the shortcomings of materials are. Maybe they can go into this space and talk and work together on new materials. An architect can ask 'if glass were this much stronger could I use if for floors, or if metal was not so heavy what could I do?' The introductory and intermediate glassblowing classes are about undergraduate students and the excitement of discovery. This will be at a slightly more advanced graduate research level."
Nadarajan agrees. "Ultimately I think these differently oriented people need to be brought together. I think the more locations we can find where they are brought together, and the more they can look at problems in their different ways, the better position we will be in to understand the future."
This article was featured in Focus on Materials - Spring 2006.