For more than 75 years, the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD)  Edna Lawrence Nature Lab’s teaching collection of natural history specimens has been used as inspiration in myriad studio projects.

RISD’s Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab. Photo: Michael Benson

RISD’s Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab. Photo: Michael Benson

Somewhat reminiscent of a Victorian “cabinet of curiosities,” the Nature Lab is a memorable space, and many alumnae write that it was one of their favorite placeson campus. In my time at RISD I, too, have become appreciative of its uniqueness and an ever more ardent advocate for the value of biology in an art and design education.

Part of the reason is that inspiration from nature is timeless and taps into our innate affinity for the living world, what biologist E. O. Wilson termed “biophilia.” Through careful observation, comparison and composition, students examine the fundamentals of pattern, form, texture and color found in nature. In addition, the collection provides opportunities for studying the relationship between physical structure and function— essentially, how individual organisms have created design solutions for survival through evolution and how these might be applied in new areas of bio-inspired design such as biomimicry.

Beyond being a source of inspiration and natural history, however, the Nature Lab is playing an emerging role as a forum for broader conversations about human inquiry, the biological influences on art and design and their relevance in addressing the environmental, economic and social problems we face today.

Through a grant from the National Science Foundation to the Rhode Island EPSCoR network (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), RISD, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University and six other institutions of higher education in the Ocean State are working to broaden their research capacities and advance innovation in science and engineering, particularly with regard to climate change and its impact on marine ecosystems.

RISD’s niche focuses on creating collaborative studios and workshops bringing together artists, designers, scientists and students to explore topics around data visualization and science communication. To date, five semester-long studios have been completed with varied themes such as designing oyster habitats that also raise public awareness of coastal ecosystems, presenting climate-science issues through e-books and apps for mobile devices and developing interactive graphics for analyzing large data-sets related to the genetics and disease resistance in shellfish.

As diverse as these projects have been, the confluence of both art and science has required all students, regardless of their academic backgrounds, to deal with technical considerations, develop some understanding of biological systems and generate narratives that would create greater meaning around environmental information for either scientists or the public. In addition, it encourages them to consider what happens when we bring together the type of qualitative, subjective inquiry we typically associate with art and the quantitative, objective inquiry we associate with science in a studio setting to explore complex problems. Many would point out that art and science are fundamentally different processes—notably that science typically wants to answer its questions with the fewest possible outcomes and arrive at a solid conclusion. Artistic inquiry has no such constraints. Yet increasingly, we see evidence that these seemingly disparate ways of thinking are actually linked. For example, Albert Einstein famously relied on mental imaging as a tool in problem solving, something that recent studies have shown can be enhanced by artistic training.

Can encouraging students to work in both modes – gliding back and forth along an art-science continuum unfettered at one end and constrained at the other – indeed help them tackle complex issues or design problems?

In her recent book The Watchman’s Rattle, sociobiologist Rebecca Costa argues that our ability to address increasingly complex challenges is inhibited by widely held cultural beliefs and the relatively slow pace at which the human brain can evolve. She proposes that we foster new modes of investigation whereby both right and left sides of the brain work in conjunction, something Costa believes leads to the type of spontaneous, intuitive insight that has previously led to great discoveries.

The EPSCoR initiative has more than two years of studios still remaining, and the wider lessons of such collaborations remain to be assessed. However, it’s already become clear that this type of integrated thinking around technology, biology and our human-nature connection can only help us meet the future in more insightful and sustainable ways.