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Pushing the Boundaries of Art and Science With Leah Buechley

Visiting Innovator Leah Buechley shows Richmond community how to blend high tech with traditional craft.

A motion-activated, light-up jacket that cyclists wear to display turn signals. An interactive dress that senses the air’s pollution level. A book that mimics the motions and sounds of drawing breath.

These are just a few examples of creations made with the LilyPad Arduino, a small, conductive technology that can be sewn to fabric and connects to power supplies, sensors, and actuators with conductive thread. Leah Buechley—inventor of the LilyPad Arduino as well as a designer, electrical engineer, educator, and founder of the High-Low Tech group at MIT Media Lab—shared the creative thought behind her invention with the Steward community as our last Visiting Innovator of the 2016-17 school year.

On Wednesday, April 19, Ms. Buechley spent the day on Steward’s campus participating in hands-on workshops and discussing her work with students, faculty, and staff. In the afternoon, she connected with community members at a family-friendly Maker Fair in the Bryan Innovation Lab, where interactive stations allowed attendees to engage with textiles, technology, robotics, circuits, and design. Guest exhibitors include the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VCU Department of Fashion Design, Build RVA, and the Science Museum of Virginia.

Following the maker fair, Ms. Buechley presented a lecture and discussion to the community in which she shared how her background influenced her career path.

“As a child, I was always into art and dance, but my favorite academic subjects were math and science,” she said. “I felt like I was more intellectually drawn to math and science, but culturally I didn’t see myself fitting in with [my perception] of that group of people. It didn’t fit with my image of who I was.”

It wasn’t until Ms. Buechley entered graduate school that she discovered how to follow both of her passions. After meeting colleagues who were working at the intersection of design and technology, she realized that she could indeed combine her interests as a career.

As she dabbled in creating various wearable fashion accessories and art pieces (ranging from light-up wrap bracelets to interactive wall installations), she wanted others to be able to have the same experience, which led to the creation of the LilyPad Arduino.

“I wanted to make that domain more accessible and available to the public so other people could do the same experiments I was doing,” she said. “Once it was commercially available, it was so fun seeing what other people were creating.”

By making technology accessible and fun for a broad array of people, Ms. Buechley aims to show programmers, artists, and students of all ages that there is no strict definition of what it means to be a scientist or an artist: you can combine and pursue as many interests as you would like.

“I want to expand the notion of what it means to be an engineer or a scientist, but also what it means to be an artist,” she said. “The boundaries of these disciplines may seem constrained, but they’re actually pretty arbitrary. You can mix things up much more than it appears.”

In her advice to students, she said: “Enjoy what you’re doing and don’t be too worried about what is going to happen. If you become too focused on a particular career path, you can miss the most interesting, exciting, and creative opportunities that often happen serendipitously when you’re not anticipating them.”

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