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Putting the Art in Science

Student Led-group Works to Bring Together Tech Fields, Fine Arts

By Shannon Clark M.Jour. ’22

Students paint mural

Members of the UMD student-led group Flower STEM worked with students and others at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County to brighten up temporary classrooms and create new murals (below) in an effort to bolster students' mental health.

Photos courtesy of Flower STEM

Starry night skies and silhouettes of pine trees adorn the side of one of Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s temporary classroom buildings, creating a peaceful respite in this corner of the campus even at midday.

Since August, the primarily earth-tone high school has received welcome splashes of color scattered across several such structures, thanks to the efforts of a UMD student group that’s uniting two currents of scholarship that are often assumed to have little in common.

Known as Flower STEM, it kicked off last spring with the goal of boosting creativity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through interdisciplinary projects that combine these technical fields with the fine arts.

“We wanted to showcase where STEM and other fields like the arts have intersections,” said founder and president Vincent Lan ‘23, a materials science and engineering major. “STEM is not just simply something you can use for your careers. It’s a creative medium.”

Because it launched during a period of primarily virtual learning imposed by COVID-19, the group began inviting professionals who combine artistry and STEM principles in their careers to speak via Zoom. One was Anouk Wipprecht, an independent “fashiontech” designer from the Netherlands, who spoke to the students in November.

Wipprecht embeds technology into wearable pieces of art, such as her social distancing-inspired Proximity Dress. Outfitted with proximity sensors along the spine, the garment notifies the wearer if someone comes within six feet while robotic arms extend the soft, white, netlike fabric of the skirt outward–almost like an old-fashioned hoop skirt–creating a physical boundary through fashion.

“The guest speakers showcased things you can make using STEM and art,” said Lan. “Morale among students was at a low, so we think this helped bring that back.”

Pink tree mural on orange background

Taking inspiration from the professionals, Flower STEM completed their first project, “Murals for Mental Health,” at ERHS, which features a STEM magnet program. Raising $4,000 for the project through UMD’s crowdsourcing platform, Launch UMD, Flower STEM members collaborated with high schoolers and teachers at ERHS to paint two large murals and five temporary classrooms on campus, incorporating class colors and Roosevelt blue.

In addition, the UMD students planted trees around the school’s athletic field to provide shade and spaces for students to sit outside.

“We wanted to give students an opportunity to enjoy life outside of academics,” said Selah Thom ‘23, a psychology major and secretary and connection lead for the group. “The structure of the school is like a box and is very bland. This gives students a way to express themselves, to take pictures in front of the murals and to find balance between academics and the things in life that bring joy.”

Through the help of a teacher at the school who had taught many Flower STEM members, the team was able to make their idea of uplifting campus through art into a reality.

“It’s nice to see Flower STEM come in and take the arts and STEM and combine them into one,” said Patrick Gleason, an English teacher and girls’ soccer coach at ERHS. “It shows the students that they can aspire to be creative and still stay in STEM fields.”

After the murals, Flower STEM members completed “The mXRket,” an interactive night market experience combining virtual and ocular reality and art, with hopes to expand initial project efforts in 2022 through end-of-the-year fundraising on Launch UMD.

Some of the group’s future plans include creating a dress that can change colors based on its surroundings and holograms that can turn any room into an “ecstatic dance party.”

“I’m probably going to become an engineer one day for some company,” said Lan. “You still have to be creative in your day-to-day work. It might not be (directly) artistic, but being able to showcase the intersection of that work through a project, it will directly translate when (group members) are applying for a job.”

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