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The Scientist as Mad Artist

An engineering educator merges dissent and avant-garde design.

“We create an atmosphere where students feel valued for what they are doing and where they don’t feel isolated.” —Douglass Henderson Zip-lining to work. Downward-facing pilot seats. Feral robotic dogs that play dead if they sniff toxic waste near playgrounds. Agitprop performance art? Perhaps, but it’s also engineering as taught by Natalie Jeremijenko, an activist, artist, engineer, and associate professor at New York University. Making no distinction between science and art, and applying the same engineering design process to ecosystems as to transportation and industry, she develops unconventional, even playful projects for museums and military applications alike.

Every endeavor, whether illuminating the impact of excreted antidepressants on Hudson River fish – her exhibit at New York’s Whitney – or having students strap on prototype wings and thrust their arms out a car window to get a feel for aerodynamics, involves rigorous engineering. Jeremijenko considers it “the humanities for the 21st century.”

Her signature course, How Stuff Is Made, attracts a robust mix of computer science, engineering and business majors. It asks students to analyze and visually document online the path of a product from raw materials to market, working with manufacturers and peers, wikistyle, to transform the process’s social or environmental impact. Students have traced American flags to remote Chinese factories, sending friends to snap photos, and suggested water-buffalo ice cream to Ben & Jerry’s. “It’s a small, concrete problem where they can make a difference,” says Jeremijenko. “They understand the complexities of manufacturing and how hard it is to innovate.” Developed a decade ago when she taught engineering at Yale, the course still has former students updating their projects.

The second eldest of 10 children, Jeremijenko grew up in Brisbane, Australia to possess a “rural, solve-the-problem, make-it-work” ingenuity and a taste for adventure. Once, working as a jackaroo mending fences in the Northern Territory’s remote tropical river delta, she lost her horse to a crocodile. “Imagine the force needed to pull a horse underwater by the nose!” she marvels – never mind that she now had to wade into the croc-infested river to fetch drinking water.

Her flair for framing art and science around society’s problems, which led Fast Company to name her one of 2011’s Most Influential Women in Technology, continues an academic journey of twists and turns. After earning bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and physics, she veered from science for a master’s in the history and philosophy of science. Giving birth to a daughter while deep into Nabokov and Joyce, she named her Mr. Jamba-djang Vladimir Ulysses Hope. A year later, she broke off slicing rat brains and pursuing a graduate degree in neuroscience to organize a Brisbane rock festival. The public art seed firmly planted, she journeyed to Stanford for doctoral studies in mechanical engineering but ultimately earned a Ph.D. in computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Queensland.

Ever since, Jeremijenko has harnessed the engineering design experience to engage students and the public in a radical rethinking of social and environmental challenges – “the problems we can touch.” Her frisky approach draws on serious scholarship, including papers in respected journals, stints as a research scientist at Xerox PARC, and a 2010 TED talk. While teaching in three departments, she directs NYU’s Environmental Health Clinic and lectures from California to Qatar.

Her participatory projects make complex ideas easier to grasp. In one course, students trick out robotic toy dogs with chemical sensors to detect trace amounts of industrial waste. They learn engineering’s social relevance when their barking packs pinpoint pollution near parks or homes.

Not every student is a convert. “All over the place” was one online comment about her 2005-2007 class at the University of California, San Diego. Undeterred, Jeremijenko is scanning new horizons. Fascinated with light sport aircraft, she developed a multifaceted design project that includes runways of bogs, not asphalt, and ergonomic seats that face downward to enhance the sense of flight. She installed a Wetlanding Zipline in downtown San Jose, Calif., to demonstrate the concept — which she sees easing Manhattan commutes. How to categorize such a package of science, art, sustainability and excitement? How about “engineering”?

Mary Lord is associate editor of Prism.




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