A most elegant solution

Can engineers and artists collaborate to solve technological, much less artistic, problems? Can they even talk to, much less understand, each other?

For engineer Max Shtein and artist Matt Shlian, who have worked together on a variety of projects for eight years, those questions have long since been supplanted by “How far can we go together?”

“There’s much more connection between art and science than I was taught to understand,” says the artist in this equation. Shlian is a lecturer in the Stamps School of Art & Design who operates a design studio in Ann Arbor. “The scientists and researchers I work with are problem-solvers, they’re designers, they’ve been talked out of thinking they’re creative but they’re incredibly creative,” he says. “Good artists have a dialogue with the material. Good scientists do that, too.”

As for the engineer: “People from the visual arts are really good at ‘thinking with their hands.’ We engineers, particularly in academia, have been trained to ‘make’ with our brains. And somewhere between that is where you actually have to innovate,” says Shtein. He is an associate professor of materials science and engineering, chemical engineering, macromolecular science and engineering, art and design, and entrepreneurship.

Shlian with tall origami

Through origami, Shlian offers engineers a chance to think about their work in three dimensions. (Image courtesy of Michigan Creative.)

Folding it together

The potential connections were clear to both Shlian and Shtein, individually, before they, well, connected. Now, they and four research teammates are at the mid-point of a four-year National Science Foundation grant that’s one of the most unconventional in the agency’s history.

The general idea is to see if origami, the ancient art of three-dimensional paper folding, can provide a foundation for three-dimensional nanotechnology. This would be an engineering breakthrough with breathtaking implications, but it necessitated a research team that included an artist. It also meant there were few predetermined deliverables, since it was basically impossible to know where such collaboration might lead.

As luck and timing would have it, Shlian was already engaged in his own outreach to align with like-minded researchers from the engineering side. Prior to meeting Shtein, the artist sent unsolicited samples of his work to about 50 U-M researchers upon moving to Ann Arbor in 2006.

Only half a dozen recipients responded, mostly expressing gratitude, appreciation, and bewilderment. But one took the bait and suggested, “’Why not give a talk at the macromolecular department,’ which was weird because I didn’t know what that was,” Shlian says. “But they didn’t know what I did, either.”

The one who took the bait, Professor David Martin, was an office neighbor of Shtein’s.

“He knew I was starting to work on some woven textile-based things, like solar cells and other kinds of devices, so he said, ‘Do you want to meet with this fellow?’” Shtein says. “He ended up scheduling a little seminar for Matt and we hit it off. I thought it would be good for me and my research group to talk to Matt and for Matt to talk to us. The things we were doing might inspire him, and he might help us think three-dimensionally.”

Ultimately Shtein and Shlian decided to teach a class that would combine engineering and art. Their hopes were simple, yet profound: The engineers could get specific tools and a language for visually representing the work they were thinking about — and an enhanced ability to communicate their goals. The artists could get a deeper understanding of how production actually works, how processes occur.

In the images below, artists and engineers come together at the Initiative Artist Collective in Ann Arbor to discuss the possibilities of nano origami.

Class is in session

Together they designed a class in problem-solving and visualization of science. The first problem was getting everybody on the same page.

“If the assignment was to extrapolate a design principle from nature, the engineers would say, ‘If we’re making a gill system, let’s research gill systems and go backwards,’” says Shlian. “The artists would start with, ‘Let’s go for a walk in the woods.’ Not until midway through the semester did the artists see the usefulness in having a plan with a deadline, and the engineers see value in being open and curious.”

That process became the basis for a much deeper understanding of how their respective perspectives can nourish both art and engineering. And that understanding has produced a bounty of potential deliverables for the grant.

“We have some very promising results on a completely new way of implementing solar tracking in solar cells,” says Shtein. “You need to aim them at the sun to get the maximum efficiency, and existing tracking systems are really antiquated, problematic, and trouble-prone. We developed a system that will eliminate a lot of the problems.”

But wait, there’s more.

“We’re looking at useful energy conversion devices that can be made using folding as a manufacturing principle,” he adds. “We’re looking at new ways of manipulating light or other kinds of electromagnetic energy using folded structures, and how to actually control the mechanics of materials.”

In light of all these possibilities, the team faces a tough choice. “We’d like to really prove something out before we move on to the next thing,” Shtein says.

Solving for the unknown

“The nice thing about this grant is we don’t know ultimately what it is we’re going to be making,” says Shlian, sounding very much the artist. He also sounds awed by the engineers with whom he’s working. “These are the smartest people I’ve ever met,” he says. “You put them in a room and something is going to happen.”

As exciting as the practical possibilities are, and as significant as the basic knowledge they’re developing about folding, the collaborative process itself might be the most significant deliverable of all.

“Explorations undertaken in the lab often come back to the studio in unexpected ways now,” says Shlian. “I might be doing solar-cell design and wondering, ‘How could this exist as sculpture?’ It’s broadened my resources of how I think about form. That makes the work richer.”

Shlian drove that point home recently through an appearance on “Sesame Street,” the venerable PBS children’s series, whose most recent season focused on STEAM. That’s the familiar science-technology-engineering-mathematics acronym, with an “A” included for art.

“They wanted artists who use their work in a way that goes beyond aesthetics or the exploration of beauty; they wanted artists who work with scientists,” Shlian says.

An unfolding discipline?

Shtein points out new disciplines in engineering emerge when solving particular problems necessitates novel blends of seemingly unrelated skill sets.

“Until people started making airplanes and rockets, it didn’t make any sense to have a department of aerospace engineering,” he says. Designing flying machines required knowledge of materials, mechanical and electrical engineering, and other areas of expertise. “Now you can major in rocket science. But before there was a field or department where you could study that, a lot of people had to get together,” he says.

Shlian with kids on Sesame Street.

Shlian demonstrates why it’s important to add “A, for arts” to the acronym STEM. (Image courtesy of Matt Shlian.)

Shtein and Shlian’s current team touches materials science and physics, as well as chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering. “You see all these different disciplines synthesizing their domains to develop the science and technology of origami,” Shtein says. “Does that mean there will soon be a major in origami engineering? I don’t know.”

Shlian says the artists he knows are ready to roll out of the studio and into the lab.

“The difficulty is finding someone who wants to pay the bill for it. This is the first grant I know of from the NSF that gave preferential treatment to [scientific] teams with artists on board. Convincing people to spend money on projects where you might not know the outcome is a hard sell.”

Some things, indeed, may never change, but cross-pollination between the ancient art of origami and the futuristic wonder of nanotechnology is showing plenty of promise.

“It comes back to the idea of STEM and STEAM,” says Shlian. “I thought they were disparate but they’re not. I can’t take off my artist hat when I’m doing science, or decide I won’t do science because I’m in the studio. It’s all the same investigation.”


  1. Steven S - 2005

    Awesome! Great work!


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