The art of engineering

Nov. 9, 2006
On the campus of the University of South Florida, one engineering professor is mixing his re-search 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 in an 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," says Snider. "Later, after I 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."

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 engineering-centric topics including a detailed exploration of the wave nature of light and the creation of cameras, from pinhole to digital.

In addition to 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," adds Snider, "my course is like an optics review, where the laboratory is the art museum."

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% while being tested on 100 artworks from 50 artists.

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