It’s early days, but some people at a few British universities are beginning to address the need to facilitate cross-disciplinary enquiry between the arts and sciences to broaden minds, enrich learning and prompt effective new thinking.

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Tom Langley’s Fluorescent Portrait. Image courtesy of the artist

As an observer of the art-science movement, for some time now I’ve been struck and surprised by the often skeptical engagement of the art market in general, and arts editors and criticism in particular, to the art and artists inspired and engaged by science. However you wish to define art, its central engagement is with the human condition  – with how to understand who we are, how we feel – and with the metaphors that capture our complexity and vulnerability. The medical sciences, in particular, and many other fields of science too, are pushing at all these boundaries; decoding body and mind, recoding emotions and our philosophical relationship with the Self. Clearly, art should be interrogating this. We all should.

Creative conversations and multiple interpretations

Creative conversations and multiple interpretations, p. 25 of Broad Vision. (Photographer: Joshua Dinsmore)

It’s early days, but some people at a few British universities are beginning to address the need to facilitate cross-disciplinary enquiry between the arts and sciences to broaden minds, enrich learning and prompt effective new thinking. The Broad Vision project at the University of Westminster is an impressive example of just such a course.

Led by artist and educator Heather Barnett, she and her team have developed an outstanding model of student-led, cross-disciplinary enquiry between arts and science undergraduates. Importantly, they have also produced a beautifully illustrated book of the process entitled Broad Vision: Inspired by… Science, so everyone can share the insights. They also staged publicly accessible exhibitions of the final projects to expose and widen the conversation; the last of which was held at Robert Devcic’s art-science gallery GV Art in London.

Now in its third year, the overarching theme employed throughout the project has been vision and perception, each year using a different focus or starting point.  The four-month programme facilitates a process of cross-disciplinary enquiry that invokes stimulus, interpretation, shared expertise, new research skills, interdisciplinary collaboration and, finally, project outcomes, with opportunities to present and exhibit them in public. Students of photographic arts; imaging science; illustration; computer science; psychology and life sciences, swapped labs, studios, darkrooms and classrooms to discover new views of how we see, capture and interpret the world around us. They shifted from being experts (in their own field) to the excitement and wonder of being a novice (in another). Sub-themes emerged which would form the themes for the specific projects illustrated in this book – Trick of the Light, Catching Time, Fractals and Patterns, Hidden Forces, Little Creatures and Being Human. Students chose which project to join and the process of collaborative research, learning and making began.

The staff facilitators were under no illusion about how challenging interdisciplinary research and project management can be, particularly in light of the logistics of time, space and course commitments for both students and staff. Their insights and frustrations are honestly captured throughout the book. The enthusiasm of the student responses, captured after each part of the process, speak for themselves:

“Exactly the opposite of my course…  We learned that being right isn’t always necessary… Huge variety of viewpoints… Opened up my mind to very different ways of thinking… Each next conversation was better, as if creative and social parts of the brain had warmed up to work better… This thing is kind of nerdy but in a really positive and fun way… Will be beneficial in the future…”

Experts and novices having informal conversations around the microscopes

Experts and novices having informal conversations around the microscopes. (Photographer: Chiara Ceolin)

The learning programme has been developed, tested and refined over the three years and now a collaborative module has been accredited running for the first time this year – which hopes to secure a sustainable model for interdisciplinary learning which can function successfully within higher education institutions.

It, perhaps, goes some way towards the proposal outlined in educationalists’, Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson, recent publication From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery (2011) for an alternative model to the current system of UK education. The Westminster students worked as a ‘community of discovery’, moving from looking for answers to finding questions. That’s a great example of Coffield and Williamson’s vision of ‘collaborative learning, based on dialogue, to release the social and creative resources of our educators, learners, institutions and communities’.

The results of the collaborative project are currently underway. ‘Data, Truth & Beauty’, will be shared at GV Art, 49 Chiltern St, London W1U 6LY from 23-30 May 2013.

BROAD VISION: Inspired by… Images from Science is published by the University of Westminster, 2012. It is co-authored by the Broad Vision students and staff researchers, edited by Heather Barnett, and with a foreword by Robert Devcic. Available to buy at £16.95 here.