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Center for Expressive Technologies: Paving the Way for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

At the center of Cal Poly’s polytechnic identity is the desire to infuse every department with the tools needed to stay true to the university’s Learn by Doing philosophy. In an increasingly technology-oriented world, the manner in which students learn and apply new skills is through the very use of technology.

Consistently working to bridge the divide between science/technology and the liberal arts disciplines, the CLA is closing the gap, offering the technological world new avenues of relevant and successful innovation through the integration of creativity and humanistic approach — cultural relevance, social acceptability, policy issues and limitations, attitude formation, communication, etc.

Earlier this year, President Jeffrey D. Armstrong approved a proposal to establish the Cal Poly Center for Expressive Technologies (CET) — a site where faculty, staff and students research and develop new ways of incorporating technology into artistic expression across the arts.

CET tasks require interdisciplinary collaboration, uniting students and faculty on projects from inception through completion. CLA’s own dedication to fostering the center’s growth results from the desire to encourage collaboration across campus. Starting with the college’s own cross-section of programs, the goal is to make the CET a center where the various talents across campus are brought together.

“My vision is for the center to be a central location where people who are interested in this sort of interdisciplinary work can come for support,” said Elizabeth Lowham, CET director. “The center is about community support and learning how to become a leader in these sorts of projects and expanding people’s understanding of how technology and expression interact and build off each other.”

Started as a small unofficial grassroots organization by passionate faculty in the Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies (LAES) Program — with a mission to engage students and faculty in the areas of research, technology, expression and communication — the new center is leveraging the projects developed by the founding group. Among these inherited ventures are PolyXpress, Los Osos Middle School Area 55 and “Re/Collecting” projects.

As the center becomes a permanent part of the Cal Poly campus, Lowham hopes that it will serve as an informative tool that explores new ways of looking at technology and its connection to the arts — a relationship she believes is more symbiotic than separate. The focus is not only about how technology can improve creative expression, but how the liberal arts can inspire the future of technology 

CET’s goal of converging technical innovation with creative expression and entertainment is possible because of Cal Poly’s polytechnic identity and experience with engineering, mechatronics, commercial design and imaging. But CET also utilizes the CLA’s expertise in literature, music, theatre, dance and the visual arts.   

“In terms of this sort of work,” Lowham said, “I think there’s a push and a focus on the idea of storytelling, and storytelling (itself) has lots of different meanings and it happens in a lot of different ways.”

“And we’ve always used technology, although we didn’t always call it that, as a way of implementing storytelling. From the beginning we have always intermeshed technology with what we might call the liberal arts, so I think that effort is just expanding what we mean by technology and how we use and integrate it. 

Through its projects, the CET strives to develop new methods to tell the stories of individuals, groups and environments.

In that vein, CET has been supporting the work of Ethnic Studies Professor Grace Yeh and her students for the “Re/Collecting” project that outlines the history of Japanese and Filipino-American communities from the region. The work consists of digitizing interview and archive materials into searchable databases. This is only one of many examples of how the Center for Expressive Technologies is incorporating an interdisciplinary approach to tell stories that, up until now, have remained untold or neglected.

With this in mind, Lowham notes that, “The goal is to make CET sort of the center of interdisciplinary work that is at the intersection of the creative and technical human interactions with each other and the world around us.” 

Gathering students and faculty from different disciplines has resulted in several other projects that demonstrate CET’s growing presence on campus.

“The breadth of the center’s mission is pretty broad and it encompasses a lot of different activities — everything from the development of computer games and storytelling applications to the creation of expressive environments and interactive theater work,” Lowham said. 

“I think the advantage of that breadth is it allows us to connect across those mediums and those ideas and build off those relationships.” 

In spring 2012, CET partnered with Computer Science Professor Michael Haungs and his students to create PolyXpress, an app that allows users to create location-specific multimedia stories that can be shared instantly worldwide.  

CET faculty and students also combined the app with this fall’s Los Osos Middle School Area 55 project, a fundraiser event that benefitted the school. The venture included students from the Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies Program as well as from the Architecture Department.

CET’s facilitation of the project allowed Cal Poly and middle school students to come together to solve the intricate problems that require skills from science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

As CET begins to transition from a smaller, grassroots group to a larger center with a pivotal role on campus, Lowham said that the original mission that was the impetus for the center in the first place will not be lost.

“Our goal is to expand the scope of projects we work on while still being true to who we are and what we want,” Lowham said.

As director, Lowham is working to garner support for present and future projects that can contribute to the development of interdisciplinary work. Upcoming projects include the SLO Mini Maker Faire, and proposed activities include an artist-in-residence program and summer workshops.

Furthering this enterprise, Lowham and her team are currently seeking to develop relationships with industry and commercial partners to widen the resources available through the center. 

Pushing the CET forward is representative of CLA’s efforts to advocate for the effective presence of the liberal arts in the 21st century and beyond.

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