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“ArtScience” Teaches Cross-Disciplinary Thinking & Innovation

A Conversation with Carrie Fitzsimmons of the Boston 100K ArtScience Innovation Prize

Interview by Aaron Devine

Carrie Fitzsimmons is the acting Executive Director of the Cloud Foundation whose mission is to foster hope and confidence in urban teens through artistic and cross-cultural expression. Together with Cloud Foundation founder, David Edwards, Carrie has led the creation of the Boston 100K ArtScience Innovation Prize, an urban teen empowerment program that provides learning opportunities through the development of breakthrough ideas in arts and design at the frontier of scientific knowledge.

I sat down with Carrie at the Cloud Place in Copley Square to talk about the recently launched ArtScience Prize, flaws in the U.S. public education system, the nature of inspiration, and why now is exactly the right time to develop more Leonardo Da Vincis.

NPi: Congratulations on launching the Boston 100K ArtScience Innovation Prize. What form is it taking and is it the form you expected it would take?

CF: Yes, absolutely. We kicked off the Boston 100k ArtScience Prize on Monday, Sept 21st at the grand ballroom of the Boston Ballet. The week before, we’d been doing a road show in most of the high schools. Our staff personally presented to 3,900 teens. The prize is open to any eligible Boston high school teenager.

NPi: And that was a promotional tour to get the word out?

CF: Yes, we had about 300 students show up [to the launch]. It was amazing. They listened to David Edwards, our founder, talk about what the ArtScience prize is. It is certainly a competition, but it is also an after-school academic program. David talked about what we mean by idea translation. He first created this curriculum and process at Harvard. For about four years he has taught the Idea Translation Lab at Harvard and by “art/science” he means really the soul of creativity. When you cross disciplines you see things with a new perspective and so you’re more creative. We also believe that when you empower students with an idea, or their own passion for an idea, that they’ll learn experientially more than they would otherwise. The ArtScience Prize ultimately is an art and design competition with a scientific theme. Teams start with a seed idea and then work to translate that idea.

NPi: How’s it going so far?

CF: Amazing. We’re just still trying to get everything running smoothly, but at the end of our second week, we’re nearly there. [The students] come once a week for a seed idea translation with a project mentor and once a week for an art class. We truly believe that to be more creative, you have to be a bit polymathic. So this is polymathic experience where they’re translating their idea and learning a bit of science, but also taking art for the creative process, not just the outcome. It’s all about process.

NPi: What’s polymathic mean? 

CF: Polymathic is like Leonardo Da Vinci where you excel in more than one medium or discipline. Our catch phrase is we’re trying to catalyze the next Renaissance generation. We believe we have not seen a more creative time since the Renaissance, and that’s because the Medicis could pay to bring scientists together with mathematicians and artists and poets. It’s that breeding ground where people are crossing disciplines and having conversations that allow them to make associations they wouldn’t otherwise make. And that’s the creative spark we think is needed for innovation.

NPi: You talked about “the soul of creativity” earlier, and there’s this great line on Cloud Foundation’s website that says, “Before ideas grow as science, they emerge as art—the most natural language of youth.” That struck me and I wanted to ask: What it is about kids, about teenagers, that Cloud Foundation would make this investment in them?

CF: For many reasons. First of all, we believe we need to empower young people everywhere now to really believe in themselves and to work in a cross-disciplinary environment before they get older. So many of us have become stuck in disciplinary silos. Youth naturally cross disciplines. They don’t see barriers. So we’re just trying to encourage that space.

Also, the education system in the United States was created during the Industrial Age to serve that time. We need to rethink how we educate our youth for the future. So many people are talking about 21st century skills and so forth, and there is so much chaos in the world, on so many levels, that we really need a creative environment to solve these problems. We start by educating our youth so that they’re not afraid to cross disciplines, so that they can believe in themselves, so that they can dream that anything is possible if they put their mind to it.

NPi: What problems will they be putting their minds to?

CF: Our theme this year is neuroinformatics. We want to always be at the frontier of science, and so much is not known about the brain. Seventy to eighty percent of every person’s brain works in the subconscious. So without you even knowing it, when you’re posed with a question or a problem—and this goes back to crossing disciplines—your brain is throwing up answers, saying ‘I know this, I know this,’ and it’s only because of associations you’ve seen in the past or experiences you’ve had. If you see something in a fresh light, you might make a connection you wouldn’t otherwise make.

[The students] start with a seed idea. It could totally take a left turn and turn into something else, but these are far out there ideas. One idea, for example, is a dream cap. You wear a cap at night that records your dreams so that in the morning, when you’re brushing your teeth, you can watch your dreams. Now, what are the implications of that? It could go anywhere. It could turn into an art exhibition, it could turn into some sort of company, it could be a humanitarian effort. But we want them to ask these questions. Knowing your dreams, what does that tell you? What does it mean to be human? to have feelings?

NPi: What kinds of ideas have already come from this process?

CF: I can give you some examples of things that have happened with the Harvard students because David has done this [with them], so we know it works.

In 2007, David was on a group working to think of innovative lighting to light London for the 2012 Olympics. He gave the group a seed idea: Think of some creative solutions for lighting London. The team—we believe it’s more powerful to be creative and innovative when you work as a team—realized that many of them were from different parts of Africa. They went to David and said, “Actually, we’re not really interested in lighting London. We’d like to light Africa.”

That was part of David’s learning experience as well. He knew that to empower them to really pursue their passion, they needed to take [the project] where they wanted. So they learned some science along the way around all sorts of energy sources and came up with a solution, which is growing energy. It’s an off-grid energy solution, a company called Lebônê Solutions. They won the World Bank prize in Africa, they’re winning all sorts of prizes, and this was because they started with a seed idea… And this was a mixture of students, none of them specialized in this area. But they learned [new skills] in order to follow their passion.

NPi: Is it hard to talk about bringing arts and science together?

CF: At first people are very intrigued. It may take a little to explain what we’re doing, but people get really excited. Ultimately, everyone wants to be in this space, even the schools. They realize–I guess it was maybe 15 years ago that they introduced standardized testing—we’ve become so focused on teaching to the test that we’ve lost the ability to really be creative and cross disciplines within the classrooms. And I think the teachers, the policymakers, everyone’s really eager for [our work].

NPi: What is it that catches their imagination?

CF: Everyone knows when you see things with fresh perspective, when you think about something differently, or when you bring in creativity, it enhances the human experience at every level. Everyone needs to be creative. We need to be creative in our board rooms, in our lives. No matter what your job is, you need to be creative to keep your interest there and keep doing better.

NPi: We live in a time when people hire creativity coaches to come in and consult…

CF: Exactly, and everyone is born with the ability to be creative. No matter what you do, if you have a new idea, that’s creativity in action. We all have imaginations, and when you implement on that imagination, that’s creativity in practice.

NPi: So going back to the Artscience Prize, why a prize?

CF: We looked at the MIT 100K [prize], an entrepreneurial competition at MIT, which really helps things come to fruition and helps businesses at MIT and young people who apply and participate in their process. And it’s exciting. The money for the ArtScience Prize is broken up for winning teams to pursue their idea. We want to show them that if they believe in it, we can help make it happen. When we were doing our road show at the high schools, it was almost like Willy Wonka and the golden ticket. We were [saying], you can dream… we believe in you, you could win, your team could go to Paris. They just got so excited.

You should have seen the energy in the room when they showed up to just learn and hear about the prize! If you saw 300 students sitting there listening to David Edwards talk about these neuroinformatics seed ideas that are just out there—they were just silently watching. And at the end, after two and half hours, I got up and said, ‘We’re so excited!’ and some of the kids yelled, ‘We’re excited, too!’

NPi: Did David Edwards do a Willy Wonka tumble?

CF: He did not. [Laughs]

NPi: Who are these kids and where are they coming from? 

CF: The applications we got came from 19 of Boston’s high schools. There are about 42, so it was close to fifty percent.

NPi: Public or private?

CF: This year it was just the public high schools. It was a way for us to control numbers. This is a crucial year because we want to launch this program, really learn and evaluate to ensure that it’s a quality program. We need to keep our numbers small this year. Mayor [Thomas M.] Menino was really supportive and excited with what we were doing, as was Superintendent Dr. [Carol R.] Johnson. They allowed me to speak to the headmasters at the high schools in Boston, and we worked with several of the department heads as we worked through our curriculum. They were really helpful.

NPi: Other than the money, what’s getting [the students] excited about the program?

CF: I think it’s the idea that they could do anything. One young woman came up to me and said, “My dream is to become an architect, but they don’t have art classes here at my school and I don’t know how to draw. Will you teach me how to draw?” And I said, “Certainly, you can sign up for one of the art classes and we’ll work on that as you’ll also pursue your seed idea with your team. We can do that for you.” So I think there are many reasons why they’re here.

NPi: What kind of a pilot location will Boston be?

CF: Boston is known as an innovative hub, and it has a lot of great thinkers. David is at Harvard and has a great network of professional colleagues there and at MIT. Mayor Menino and Boston World Partnerships—they’re great resources. So it’s exciting to be piloting in Boston this year, and then we intend to scale [the prize] both nationally and internationally in the coming years.

NPi: What is tomorrow’s success story for the ArtScience Prize?

CF: Tomorrow’s success story is that we have transformed the lives of as many teens as have gone through the process this year. There’s so much that they’re going to learn even if they’re not on one of the winning teams. The fact that they’ve pursued an idea with a passion, that they know that there are no limits out there… We’re going to teach them along the way 21st century skills: public speaking, creative writing, writing your idea, conceiving your idea, brainstorming, working with a team. These skills are not necessarily taught elsewhere. As people get to the workforce, they don’t necessarily know how to work as teams.

NPi: It seems like this project fits well with you, someone who has been involved in the arts, but also on the management side, reaching across boundaries, like in your prior work [as Director of Administration, Planning, and Stewardship] with the ICA. What have you learned working here?

CF: David will say what we’re doing is a bit of an experiment as well. Just being a part of this group that’s creating this, I really believe in what we’re doing here. It’s taught me what we hope to teach the teens: that there are no limits. Really, you just need to go out there and knock on doors, and people are open to new ideas and new partnerships.

NPi: Has your perspective changed at all? Either on the organizational side or the student side? 

CF: I’ve always believed in the arts, but now even more so. And maybe it’s just this year while there was so much going on: the financial crisis, the historic election of President Obama. It’s an exciting time, and I think what we’re doing aligns with where the world is. We’re ready for ArtScience. There are so many people around the country working on creativity and innovation… I think we are a part of this bigger movement.

How To Get Involved:

Updated: Join us on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 from 4-6pm at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theater for the 2010-2011 Boston ArtScience Prize Kick-off! The 2010/2011 school year’s theme is The Future of Water.

The Cloud Foundation is actively fundraising and looking for supporters the Artscience Prize and their work. To learn more, please visit: www.artscience100k.org. Click here to watch a short video about the ArtScience Innovation prize.

Aaron Devine is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, MA. His most recent work, Wonder/Wander: 522 Days in Latin America, is a literary scrapbook that combines poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction prose to tell the stories of people and communities off the tourist trail from Nicaragua to Argentina. Contact him at: aajamde@yahoo.com.


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