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Grad Engineering Programs Probe Intersection of Science, Art

Art training can help engineers think more creatively, some grad students say.

Engineers are turning to art for creative inspiration

When engineers seek solutions to a problem—such as how to build a bridge to traverse a river—they tend to draw upon designs that have worked in the past. It takes an artist to provide a "more creative approach," says Christie Lin, a graduate engineering student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

By collaborating, engineers and artists can push the limits of what is already known about their respective fields, explains Lin, who studies nuclear engineering at MIT, where she is also part of the Art Scholars group. 

Margaret Duff, a doctoral student at Arizona State University's Fulton School of Engineering, agrees with Lin. "Engineers tend to make very small, incremental improvements on things that have already been done, and they don't really allow their creativity to take full force," she says. "Artists can teach you to be more open to new things and to think about things in different ways." 

Both Lin's and Duff's schools are part of what some are calling a new movement in engineering schools toward the interdisciplinary study of science and art. Arizona State offers a graduate electrical engineering degree with a concentration in arts, media, and engineering; University of California—Davis runs an Art/Science Fusion Program; Stanford University offers a joint M.F.A. and M.S. program in product and visual design, a collaboration of its departments of mechanical engineering and art and art history; and the College of Engineering at University of California—Santa Barbara cohosts a graduate program in Media Arts and Technology. More recently, MIT created a Center for Art, Science & Technology

"No one wants to live in a world of ugly buildings and clunky gadgets," says Evan Ziporyn, the director of the new MIT center and a music professor. "Meanwhile, engineering breakthroughs are allowing artists to think new thoughts and express new ideas. Everyone benefits when engineers, scientists, and artists are in constant dialogue with one another." 

[Learn about design M.B.A.'s that don't require art backgrounds.] 

Thinking outside of the box can help students land engineering jobs, particularly in a difficult job market where employers are increasingly looking for renaissance men and women, or "seller-doers," who can both practice engineering and sell the company, according to Anthony Fasano, CEO and founder of Powerful Purpose Associates, an engineering career consultancy in Ridegewood, N.J. 

"When you approach an engineering problem, if you can solve it in a way that is going to be the most efficient and effective, then you're going to be in really good shape," says Fasano, who is author of Engineer Your Own Success. "Let's say you're going to build a bridge, and all of a sudden a creative engineer that went through the program at MIT says, 'You know what, why don't we try to use this kind of material rather than just steel.' Maybe that ends up saving them $100 million on the project and maybe even ends up being more effective from a strength perspective." 

Some students see that connection early on. When Nicole Lehrer tells people she double majored in biomedical engineering and painting in college, she gets a lot of surprised responses. "The general consensus is, 'Wow, those are really different,' or they'll always refer to the two sides of the brain," Lehrer says. 

Now as a graduate student at ASU, Lehrer is at the intersection of design and engineering. Her research focuses on the rehabilitation experience, such as using computer graphics to help stroke patients regain functional use of their arms, she explains. 

Another field that is bridging the disciplines of art and engineering is art conservation. "It's a natural fit ... It's physical application of my research," says Garret DeNolf, a materials engineering doctoral student at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

DeNolf worked with researchers at the Art Institute of Chicago to conserve and analyze the paints that Picasso used. 

[Check out the U.S. News best fine arts schools rankings.]