Prototyping The Future

How do we strengthen design and technology education to better equip students for 21st century challenges? What is the role (if any) for the arts and humanities in the STEM-centered curricula of the future?

The debate over questions like these rages on among pundits, education reformers, policymakers, parents, and students.

Meanwhile, ITP (The Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University) has been collaborating across disciplines in technology and the arts to prototype the future for the last 35+ years.

Fareed Zakaria warns in a recent Washington Post column of the dangers of America’s current obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. His argument is that a narrow focus on technical skills at the expense of other disciplines actually hinders innovation and progress. Zakaria explains:

A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization…
Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter N. Miller asks, “Is ‘Design Thinking’ The New Liberal Arts?” Miller profiles the Stanford and then explores how design thinking’s ethos of prototyping and hands-on learning by doing can integrate with a traditional liberal arts curriculum that focuses on analyzing historical and cultural artifacts, narratives, and contexts.

Reading Zakaria and Miller’s arguments for integrating the arts and humanities with science and technology reminded me of my own educational experience at ITP, where I had the opportunity to do exactly that. I am a 2010 graduate of the program and currently serve as president of the alumni association.

Red Burns, co-founded ITP in 1979 and served as the chair of the department for most of its history. Under Red’s leadership, ITP became a place to teach technology as a means of creative expression and a way to improve people’s lives.

At ITP I learned valuable technological skills such as the basics of physical computing, digital design, and web programming. But with such rapid technological change in the five short years since I graduated, many of the specific skills that I studied are now on their way out, drastically changed, or obsolete.

But more than just technical and vocational skills, I learned a human- and community-centered approach to design and technology. I learned how to learn.

I learned how to collaborate in diverse, multidisciplinary teams. I had classmates from Turkey, Korea, Mexico, Japan, Israel, and a host of other countries. We came from a variety of career paths, from former corporate lawyers to musicians, from scientists to human rights activists.

Today, my classmates are working in a wide range of environments from startups to large corporations, from fine arts to creative agencies, and from academia to the United Nations. For example, my classmate, and Jason Rosado turned his thesis project into a social enterprise called Givkwik, a tech platform for participatory philanthropy. Zoe Fraade-Blanar has become an expert on the phenomenon of fandom and will be publishing a book on the subject in 2016. Another classmate, Sonaar Luthra, spoke at TED about Water Canary, a portable networked water quality sensor that began as an ITP class project.

I learned that you don’t need to be a great programmer or engineer to have a seat at the table of innovation. I could still write code and solder circuit boards as a way to play and to prototype my ideas. Red Burns taught me that a computer was just a tool like a pencil, a tool meant to serve people, not something to be feared or given too much reverence.

I learned that humanity and community mattered more than the technology.

I learned to go beyond just designing artifacts and interfaces, and instead to craft holistic experiences and tell stories that invite participation. In recent years, the business press has caught on to the power of storytelling. In the Harvard Business Review, Harrison Monarth declared storytelling a “strategic business tool of irresistible power.” Entrepreneur’s Amy Cosper declared 2014 “Year of the Story.” Writing in Fast Company, Steve Tepper asked, “Is an MFA the New MBA?” Meanwhile ITP, housed in the same Tisch School of the Arts as the New York University film department, has been integrating storytelling with technology and innovation for decades.

I can think of very few places where one can have as much creative freedom and diversity of opportunities as ITP. It was at ITP that I got to fully express and integrate my artistic and entrepreneurial selves.

One of my favorite classes at ITP was called “Animals People and Those In Between,” taught by Marina Zurkow, an artist working in media technology, video, and animation. We read cultural studies and social science texts about the relationship between humans and animals. We discussed the texts in class, like one would in a humanities course. And then, rather than writing essays on them, we created our own responses and reactions in the media of our choosing. I created an animated music video featuring characters that I created inspired by Catullus, the Roman poet, and Japanese mascot characters à la Sanrio.

ITP also provided me with an outlet to expand on my musical expression. I composed and performed a musical trio for hacked Wii controller, keytar, and maracas. I also built a pair of “headbanger headphones” that would change the music they played based on the motions of the user’s head.

I also had the opportunity to study with Clay Shirky in a class called “Social Facts,” where we studied group dynamics and explored how network technologies affect our social interactions. I was then able to integrate what I learned directly into my work building online-driven social movements at Purpose, the consultancy where I worked during and for three years after ITP. My masters thesis was the prototype for a barter social network, a platform similar to what offers today.

ITP provided me with the space to play, explore, and to take risks. All of these diverse projects and experiences have brought me where I am today running Foossa, an independent community-centered strategy consultancy and design studio.

As our debates about 21st century pedagogy continue, ITPers will continue playing with the recently possible and prototyping the future. How then can we expand the ethos of ITP to other educational spaces? How do we make the spirit of play and integration of the arts and STEM mainstream and commonplace?

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