Xpress presents: 2017 Asheville Innovators — Sara Sanders and Brent Skidmore

Sara Sanders and Brent Skidmore of UNC Asheville's STEAM studio.
Sara Sanders and Brent Skidmore of UNC Asheville's STEAM studio.

Marked by a variety of characteristics, innovation can be found in multiple disciplines. But all innovators set out in front of the pack, bushwhacking a trail where none exists. Innovative organizations and projects bring outside-the-box thinking to problems or present a refreshing take on the status quo.

Xpress sought to find those clearing the path for our community’s future and put out a call for the public to nominate innovators. We received a total of 41 nominations and, through a process of several in-house jury deliberations, arrived at the eight we profile in this special issue. It wasn’t easy. And the runners-up made us deliberate if we should even feature more.

Xpress is proud to present Asheville’s Innovators. We hope their actions inspire you to innovate in your corner of Western North Carolina.

Xpress Asheville Innovator jury: Edwin Arnaudin, Jeff Fobes, Dan Hesse, Max Hunt, Carolyn Morrisroe, Tracy Rose and Gina Smith

AVL INV

UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio

Website: SteamStudio.unca.edu

Brent Skidmore, Sara Sanders, Susan Rieser, Rebecca Bruce, Jackson Martin and Matt West, collaborative co-founders

Describe your organization/project.
Founded by an interdisciplinary team of engineering and sculpture faculty and staff, UNC Asheville STEAM Studio @ the RAMP is a state-of-the-art fabrication/making space combining the curricular forces of engineering and art. STEAM Studio is an 11,647-square-foot space that acts as a hands-on classroom, fabrication facility and incubator for these collaborative partners and ideas. The facility is specifically designed to nurture and promote collaborations across multiple disciplines. Students work side-by-side utilizing woodworking technologies, metal fabrication and computer-aided design. STEAM Studio provides an environment where students develop and prototype viable products, engage in creative exploration and design thinking approaches, while also implementing class projects, including the mechatronics senior design projects and senior exhibitions in art and all levels of sculpture.

Why is this needed in the Asheville area, and how does it make a difference?
When people come together from disparate fields and perspectives, we have the opportunity to learn and grow in ways we simply can’t on our own. We can achieve far greater goals when we utilize the diverse strengths and skill sets of individuals working in a team than we can when we are contained and confined in our disciplinary silos. When each individual is able to contribute in a meaningful way to the greater good of a project, everyone wins. It builds community and solves problems in a very user-centered way. When we collaborate effectively, we are forced to examine our own egos and intentions, our strengths and our weaknesses. We learn to ask for help and we learn when to offer support. When we can do these things in the context of design and making, we can enhance and optimize the user experience in the tangible and digital worlds while creating community and a sense of belonging. This is needed in Asheville, and it’s needed all over the world. We believe that public liberal arts institutions everywhere should be looking for ways to use design, making and collaboration to help us face all challenges.

What was your epiphany/eureka moment for this organization/project?
Realizing that the team, even though we come from different disciplines, all believe in teaching and learning by doing and making together. Learning how a laser cutter works is very different from using a laser cutter. While learning the standard operating procedures and safety guidelines are critical to understanding the laser cutter, without actual practice on the equipment, they provide an incomplete lesson. Designing a chair and actually physically building a chair are two very different experiences. To understand both the virtual and real space of craft and making is central to our desired experiences at STEAM. Learning by making is not a new approach: It’s a cornerstone of art, engineering and new media and follows the exceptional model of Black Mountain College.

What was the inspiration that made you take the leap from cool, cutting-edge idea to implementing it?
Collaborating in the creative fabrication course — a class in which multidisciplinary teams of students fabricate assistive technology using user-centered design process — cemented our interdisciplinary team and friendships. Of course, without the support from people in and outside of the university who saw value in what we are doing, STEAM Studio would still be just a dream.

This support from outside the university, specifically that of the Duke Energy Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation, was a giant turning point for us to realize STEAM at a time when the university is strategically planning ways to engage the community through collaboration. These foundations, along with N.C. State and the owners group at RAMP, saw value in what we were trying to do.

STEAM was designed while we were teaching the first sections of creative fabrications.

What do you think makes it innovative?
The collaboration between nontraditional allies at a public liberal arts university makes UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio innovative. When engineers and artists work in proximity to each other, organic interactions and solid partnerships occur. Those are our magic moments. And the reality is those magic moments epitomize what industry (and the world) wants to see: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. And through this innovation, we see recognition of the other and develop empathy. The innovation lies within the concept that collaborative design and making can create positive change on many levels.

How is it working now?
Honestly, it depends on the day … but overall, it is working really well.

STEAM Studio has attracted students who are interested in working outside of their disciplines and interested in collaboration. For example, sculpture student Shanna Glawson took an engineering class and incorporated what she learned in her recent senior show. In our intro to STEAM class, students from different majors are learning practical applications for both materials and tools.

We have an engineering senior design team working on a large-scale sculpture installation with Mel Chin. Embedded in this team is a senior sculpture student. There are days where we see that team working together, and it makes us feel like we have succeeded. We see it working in our students who compete on an international level building an electric race car; we see it in the Bachelor of Fine Arts student who realizes a complete solo exhibition in multiple materials; we see it in the countless collaborations of K-12 students and college students on community arts projects; we see it working through our community partners as they mentor our youths through collaboratively making canoes; we see it working in our students who are getting excellent jobs after graduation.

This semester’s creative fabrication class is partnering with MAHEC, Simply Home and several residents of Vanderbilt Apartments to design prototypes of electronically enhanced medication dispensers that satisfy the functional needs and aesthetic wishes of the clients.

What are your goals for the project in the future?
We have three “big picture” goals: 1.) to promote diversity and inclusion as it relates to the ownership of innovation and making; 2.) to increase the understanding of design thinking and collaboration through cross-disciplinary research and pedagogy; and 3.) to encourage intergenerational learning in engineering and art.

How is what you’re doing different from what others (people, organizations) are doing to solve this problem?
Two problems we are trying to address are the traditional separation of STEM fields from the arts and the disconnect between making space and curricula. We are learning how to integrate the “A” into STEM and how to create structured learning experiences in the studio.

One of the biggest differences between our approach and that of other public liberal arts universities is that we have integrated STEAM Studio into the Asheville arts community. We are physically located off campus, which allows our students to interface with professionals working in the creative sector and light manufacturing. This offers organic and structured opportunities for apprenticeships, internships and temporary, project-based work while remaining in close proximity to the main campus. Our approach to these problems is driven by our experiences working together as an interdisciplinary group of teachers and makers.

What advice do you have for people trying to use innovation to foster change in the community?
These may seem obvious, but believe in the idea, do not try to do it alone, utilize teamwork, build a team with trust, focus on a communication system that is open and, at all costs, return to the collaborative spirit that inspired you in the first place. Look within and connect to the power that made you take the leap.

Look for support within the community. The community has to want it. Look back and understand your history and what would have served you best as a student. Stay focused on the vision and avoid mission drift. Don’t think for a second that it’s going to be easy. When it’s not easy, refocus on the team and the inspiration that stems from each other and our students. Bottom line, look each other in the eyes, set egos aside and grab hold of what moves you to make change.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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