Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Distinguished Faculty Spur Innovation
At Valpo, academic disciplines are blended together across campus, facilitating new pursuits and discoveries. Elizabeth Wuerffel ’00, MFA, associate professor of art, and Jeff Will, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering, have enjoyed an enduring, collaborative relationship, embracing Valpo’s commitment to multidisciplinary innovation.
“I value the size of the University as well as its nature as a comprehensive university,” Professor Will says. “Liz and I can get together and interact, and if other possibilities arise, we can get in touch with other faculty, like music, dance, or theatre. There are no barriers. I truly believe my university values this kind of working across disciplinary boundaries.”
Professors Wuerffel and Will began their collaborative relationship more than six years ago when Professor Wuerffel and her art students sought the expertise of the College of Engineering in the area of aerial photography. Professor Will answered the call, engaging his senior design students to work on this art application. Senior design is a required engineering course that brings together students from each engineering discipline — civil, electrical, computer, mechanical, and now bioengineering — working in teams of five to seven to conceptualize, design, build, test, and assess a project.
“What attracted me to Valpo, first as a student and then again to teach, was its size,” Professor Wuerffel says. “The intimacy of the University enables me to simply walk over to another college like the College of Engineering and see who’s interested in a particular project. This ability to become interdisciplinary is one of Valpo’s strengths.”
This aerial photography project interested many engineering students, so two entire senior design teams were dedicated to it. Each team successfully designed and created an aerial balloon device for cameras to the art students’ specifications, with one team creating an indoor aerial balloon and the other an outdoor aerial balloon. This collaboration between the College of Engineering and the art department expanded during the next several years. Students produced a high-altitude aerial balloon with a parachute that traveled one mile up and contained a GPS tracking system, a submarine device to capture underwater shots, and then utilized drones to extend the balloon’s capacity even further.
The collaboration between Professors Wuerffel and Will has extended into the VisCube, an immersive 3D visualization system located in the University’s Scientific Visualization Laboratory. Using three large rear-projection walls and a front projected floor, the Viscube displays images into 3D space, allowing users to collaboratively examine and manipulate complex 3D models. Professor Will introduced virtual reality to Valpo as an educational tool in 2002. What began as a rudimentary virtual reality system consisting of two screens has developed into what is now known as the Viscube.
“I believed the power of virtual reality technology could be used in education,” Professor Will says. “Education can be moved forward through the use of virtual environments. Bringing this technology and educational method to Valpo benefits our undergrads throughout campus.”
The VisCube, in addition to enhancing students’ education and knowledge in varied disciplines, offers an abundance of opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. The use of motion capture technology has enabled art students to draw in 3D space. Students don motion capture suits and draw through movement, creating three dimensional drawings. Once exported as a video, students can wear 3D glasses and actually enter into the drawing itself. While the art students were responsible for the creative content of these videos, the engineering students provided technical support through programming, troubleshooting, and visualization of data.
Students from across campus, from dancers to theatre students, have utilized this motion capture technology. Most recently, conducting students in the music department used the Viscube to record, review, and analyze 3D renderings of their body movements while leading musical ensembles.
Erik Matson ’17, who recently received his bachelor’s degree in church music with a minor in math, utilized this motion capture technology as part of the advanced conducting course. He and his classmates went into the lab, and while sporting the motion capture suits, recorded themselves conducting multiple pieces.
“I appreciate that at Valpo there’s the opportunity to make these connections,” Erik says. It was definitely a unique experience that gave me a lot of insight and improved my conducting.”
The motion capture lab allows conducting students to study wireframes of their conducting to see exactly how each part of their body is moving. Through the 3D renderings of their conducting, students to see themselves at every possible angle and size. The students are able to detach and look beyond their physical appearance or facial expressions and delve into the conducting itself.
“The sense of inquiry, curiosity, and discovery we share when we’re collaborating is so much fun, and that’s what I love to see in my students,” Professor Wuerffel says. “What I enjoy about life is the abundance of opportunity to try new things and that means crossing disciplinary boundaries all the time.”