By Danielle Commisso (DC'07)

Late in the fall semester, Lauren Valley is busy in the studio working on a final project for a 3D media course. Using a digital cutting machine, she’s building a giant robotic-looking spider, part of an installation piece she’s developing that explores the interaction between humans and machines.

3D art is Valley’s passion, and it’s exactly what the freshman art major came to Carnegie Mellon to study, after having learned about the highly ranked programs at the College of Fine Arts. But even though she’s fulfilling the objectives of her courses, Valley’s not entirely satisfied with her work. She wishes she could make her pieces more interactive, like making the limbs of her spider move. However, without a technical background, she’s not sure how to do this.

V12n1 Trailblazers 1Then, before the start of her sophomore year, she learns about a course being offered called Introduction to Physical Computing. What’s unique is that the course is not intended only for engineering or computer science students—it’s open to, well, everyone. She signs up, thinking, why not try it?

Duncan McIsaac also enrolls in the class. He’s a junior majoring in information systems who is interested in intelligent environments, an emerging field that involves human interaction with digital devices and spaces that “learn.” For example, smart thermostats can “learn” over time how to regulate the temperature of a house.

Even with very different career trajectories in mind, Valley and McIsaac find themselves in class together. What’s more, they are two of nearly 40 students from 16 different disciplines, including computer science and design, electrical and computer engineering; and drama, to sign up. The studio-based course requires everyone—from artists to business majors to computer science students—to work in diverse groups on projects that combine elements of computing, design, and art.

This is a challenge for many students who are unfamiliar with speaking each other’s “languages,” says McIsaac. Engineers are trained to think how to make things, such as building the best possible circuit design for a digital device, whereas artists are taught to question who it is being designed for and why it is worthwhile, he explains.

To Valley, this difference becomes apparent within the first month of the course, as she and McIsaac, along with electrical and computer engineering major Marc-Daniel Julien and art major Gwen Sadler, set out on a group project. They have one week to create an object that not only combines innovative computing and design but also carries some sort of human impact and value.

The tech-minded members of the group start working out code and brainstorming possible mechanisms, and Valley finds herself separately working on the project’s concept and design.

It’s this kind of collaboration that is the core of IDeATe training (short for Integrative Design, Arts and Technology), says Thanassis Rikakis, vice provost for design, arts, and technology.

Involving more than 100 faculty members from across campus, IDeATe offers undergraduate students eight different interdisciplinary concentrations or minors in: Animation and Special Effects, Entrepreneurship for Creative Industries, Game Design, Intelligent Environments, Learning Media, Media Design, Physical Computing, and Sound Design. The minors are open to all undergraduate students. And, if any of them wish to continue studying, after graduating, they can go on to do a 4+1 master’s in emerging media program (EM2), launching in fall 2015, which piggybacks on what they learn in their minor.

When he took on the newly created vice provost position, Rikakis began spearheading IDeATe’s development in 2012, as part of CMU’s initiative to grow its “tech-arts ecosystem.” And the time is ripe: Students need to be ready to deal with the integrated, cutting-edge kinds of problems they’ll encounter in rapidly evolving arts and tech industries, he says.

For example, take the gaming industry. Walk into many collegiate dorm rooms, and you’re likely to find students playing games from a consol, like Xbox, or on computers. But as the use of mobile devices, like smartphones, increases, so will mobile gaming. As a result, game developers, such as industry-leader Electronic Arts are taxed to resolve complicated problems involving a combination of cloud server and energy issues, graphics and sound quality, and interface design.

Mobile computing and gaming, plus other 21st-century challenges like social media and the “Internet of Things,” referring to the increasing connectivity of “things” to the Internet, like cars or bio-implants—all require multidisciplinary collaboration among technologists, artists, and designers, says Rikakis.

That’s where IDeATe comes in. At the same time, while students like Valley will learn technical skills throughout the program, Rikakis says the goal of IDeATe is not to train every design student to become an expert in code or every computer science student to become an expert in 3D modeling. Rather, it’s about preparing students, like Valley and her classmates, to become comfortable working in “high-dimensional spaces,” in other words, to confidently walk into companies like Entertainment Arts and know how to converse with everyone, from programmers to animators to musicians to creative directors.

So, how do you teach this kind of collaboration?

Not through lecture courses, says Rikakis, but through immersive “fusion studios” or “collaborative making studios.”

And where do you put that?

“You put that in the library,” he says, “the typical non-proprietary space where people come together to learn from all walks of life.”

Since the launch in fall 2014, more than 200 students from disciplines across campus have enrolled in many of IDeATe’s 32 fusion studio courses. Making use of the newly renovated basement of Hunt Library, they collaborate on everything from building circuits to building 3D models, from laser-cutting to 3D printing, from writing digital music to writing digital code.

Among those students are Valley and McIsaac, whose group project led to the creation of an interactive hourglass that seamlessly integrates circuitry, sensors, and a motor with the design and meaning of the piece, which is to provoke reflection about our perception of time.

“IDeATe showed us what we were capable of,” says Valley.