Engineering Creative Design

A Bass Connections class at Duke is bringing together engineering, dance and theater students to explore communication through performance and interface design.

By Ken Kingery

A dance major, theater major and electrical engineering major walk into a classroom together. While that may sound like the start of a bad joke in the DukEngineer, it actually happens three days a week in Duke’s Hull Dance Studio.

For the past two years, students from different corners of campus have mixed audio and visual engineering know-how with creative design and performance experience. The resulting cocktail is a class that challenges students to get out of their comfort zone, collaborate with disciplines they’d be unlikely to work with otherwise and gain insights into how others solve problems.

“The class has an audio component, a visual component and a dance component, but the larger umbrella is about performance,” said Tommy DeFrantz, a professor of dance and African and African American Studies at Duke. “We talk about sports and theater as performance, but for an engineer, the act of writing code is also performance. No matter the profession, studying performance in classes like this is about exploring the ways we navigate energy in a directed fashion toward a goal.”

In the class, each group of students designs and builds an artistic performance piece. Previous projects range from intricate boxes that open automatically when approached to audio/visual experiences that are displayed in a 3-dimensional space. Once built, the students then choreograph a way for themselves or others to interact with the piece. The end goal of the endeavor is to convey meaning or information to others through that interaction.

For engineering and information science students, it can be a challenge to communicate through dance and art. Likewise, it can be a challenge for dance and theater students to wire electrical components to a microcontroller and write code. But for everyone involved, it is a challenge to create a successful interface between technical expertise and beautiful technique.

That is a lesson all engineers would do well to learn.

“Why didn’t Sony make the iPod first?” asks Martin Brooke, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who founded the class along with DeFrantz and Tyler Walters, an associate professor of the practice in dance. “They had all the pieces, but they lacked the ability to create the interface people would want to use. All too often it’s not the company with the most advanced technology that wins—it’s the company that designs the device with the best interface and performance.”

The unique class was originally the result of the Provost’s Undergraduate Team-Teaching Initiative (PUTTI), which developed new undergraduate courses where faculty from different disciplines team-taught a problem-focused course. But it has since become supported by Duke’s Bass Connections program—a university-wide initiative providing students more exposure across disciplines and partnerships with unlikely fellow thinkers.

“The class was incredibly useful for me,” said Mendal Diana Polish, a master of fine arts student studying experimental and documentary arts, who recently took the class and learned how to use a graphic programming environment called Isadora. “Isadora has become a critical tool to my work and the class promoted my fluency and application.”

So far, Brooke, DeFrantz and Walters have certainly succeeded in bringing a diverse group of students together; their classes have included dance students, electrical and computer engineering upperclassmen, master of fine arts students and even a few basketball and football players. What’s more, the university has worked to make the class count toward graduation—it’s officially listed for elective credit in the Dance Program, Theater Studies, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Information Science and Information Studies.

“One of the ways that Duke prides itself in being different in its multidisciplinary programs,” said Brooke. “They put a lot of effort and energy into making classes like this possible. It’s hard to pull off, but Duke does it right.” 

One more video on the project is available here.