‘Beyond Boundaries’ explores the intersection of art, humanities, and science

How do you teach color theory to visually impaired children? How do you communicate everyday ideas to children who may be deaf or blind? For Stephanie Valencia, a postgraduate associate at the Yale Child Study Center, these are the questions she grapples with on a daily basis.

“The challenge of disabilities is that there are different ways we have to communicate information because not everyone has the same approach to the environment and they have different sensing abilities. And this is important when you’re talking about literature, art, and also inclusion,” she explained.

Valencia was a speaker at the first annual “Beyond Boundaries: A Symposium on Hybrid Scholarship at Yale University” on April 8 hosted by Yale STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) and the Digital Humanities Lab. At the event, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty and staff presented projects that highlight the questions that can be asked and explored via digital methods and collaborations between the sciences and humanities.

In her presentation, titled “Designing for All Abilities through Art and Engineering,” Valencia showed examples of some of the products she has helped create by combining artistic and engineering principles. To teach visually impaired children about colors, she created a game similar to Bingo. By assigning the three primary colors a simple geometric pattern that children can touch — a wavy line for blue to represent the ocean’s waves, for example — children can learn how secondary and tertiary colors are made by combining the different primary colors.

“We were exploring how to bring colors to the conversation and how to have inclusion in the arts,” she explained. “Color is a very central expression in the arts, and it was nice being able to see people talk about green being a combination of blue and yellow. Although it is a little bit abstract, they can now say something about green and feel more included.”

Other projects presented by students at the symposium included an online database of key terms describing an artwork and generating a visualization of these terms to demonstrate how different artworks are related, an innovation meant to make museums more accessible; another project that explores how coding can help students better understand a medieval manuscript; and a computer that can write poetry.

Roger Pellegrini ’16, who designed the latter, began his presentation by asking the audience if they could distinguish between poetry written by the computer and by a poet.

“The most ‘human’ things are often thought to be the most difficult to encode, but as we just saw, this kind of artistic context can allow for a lot of wiggle room,” he said at the event. “[T]he point of my project isn’t to fool people — though that is fun. I am more interested in investigating where the program does fall short and what makes human-generated content human.”

The event ended with a poster session featuring projects by students. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

After the student presentations, faculty and staff from departments across Yale presented their own projects. Rebekah Ahrendt, assistant professor in the Department of Music and part of the team who found a postal “piggybank” of undelivered letters, talked about the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing the letters and to learning about 17th-century European society.

Anikó Bezur, the Wallace S. Wilson Director of Scientific Research at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (ICPH), echoed that sentiment, noting that the Yale Art Gallery and IPCH work closely together to preserve and analyze Yale’s paintings. Using technology at the IPCH, he explained, they were able to discover “hidden” features in the paintings and better convey the intricacies of art to museum visitors and the general public.

These projects and others like them are the focal point for the Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab). The lab was founded in 2015 to provide spaces, community, and resources for Yale students and faculty who are working with digital methods to address humanistic inquiries. Peter Leonard, the lab’s director, said he is excited to see the work currently being done across the university and hopes the lab can help facilitate more of these projects in the future.

“We’re new, so we’re still learning how we can best support Yale scholars. Maybe an English professor wants to teach a class but they want to do a couple of really complicated digital projects. They might need advice or suggestions; maybe we can help fund a teaching fellow to help do the digital work,” he said.

Similarly, Yale STEAM hopes to foster a campus-wide interest and appreciation of the intersection between STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and the arts, said president and founder Chanthia Ma ’17. She said she decided to bring STEAM to campus after working at the Yale Art Gallery as a STEM and arts intern during her sophomore year. While her job was to bring scientists to the gallery, she felt artists could also benefit from exposure to the sciences.

“I feel we have so many wonderful facilities at Yale, both in the arts and the sciences, but there’s nothing really joining them together; at least that was my perspective sophomore year,” she explained. “As STEAM, we want to host events and workshops that allow you to have these interdisciplinary experiences.”

Valencia said having those experiences is crucial to her work and she hopes more people will take the time to consider both art and science when pursuing future projects.

“I am an engineer, that’s my background, but I think art brings an essential component to the conversation; it brings the expression, the identity, and the individual meaning. I love how both can come together and we don’t have to choose between them,” she said. “Technology gives us the tools but art is the composition: What are these tools useful for and what do they mean to people? I think it’s useful for developers to ask themselves this question so everyone can be included.”