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IDEA Incubator for Porous Materials: Integrating Discovery, Engineering and Art is a summer program offering engineering students the opportunity to develop their skills in communication, design and visual arts.

Undergraduate researchers at the University of Kansas had a unique opportunity to combine seemingly incompatible areas of interest this summer: engineering and visual art. 

Claudia Bode, the education director for the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis at the University of Kansas, knew of the potential benefits of combining these areas and decided to set up a summer research program where students could explore porous materials while introducing visual art and storytelling to their technical work.

The program, called the IDEA Incubator for Porous Materials: Integrating Discovery, Engineering and Art, is a 10-week experience that began on May 20 and will run through July 26. Thirteen students joined the program, including several from other universities and parts of the world such as India and Puerto Rico.

The idea for the program is to integrate design, art and engineering to help students improve skills such as problem solving, communication and innovative thinking, Bode said. Combining art into research helps students better communicate the small-scale work of porous materials their audience may have trouble visualizing, according to Bode.

“They’re trying to work in these areas where you can’t really visualize it very well, so they have to be able to communicate and understand those concepts so a listener can understand when they talk about their different types of research concepts,” Bode said.

What makes the program so unique, according to Bode, is a weekly “idea incubator” — a part of the program where all of the students gather with Bode and other leaders to build communication skills.

"To be a really good science researcher, you need to be able to communicate," Bode said. "The main part of this whole idea incubator part is to build their communication skills."

In the incubators, students can have discussions about art, design and communication aided by Kent Smith, a lecturer from the KU Department of Design.

"[Smith is] helping us talk about principles of design and principles of how to use visuals to support your communication," Bode said. "Then, since I have a background in communicating science … Kent and I are working with them to try to tell really good, interesting stories that engage audiences in the science and engineering that they work on."

The incubators mainly focus on art and communication. Occasionally, though, students had the opportunity to speak about their own lives and journeys. It’s an effort to make science human, Bode said.

“We just recently had a really amazing session where they all told their personal stories about themselves and how they got to KU, how they came to this program and how they became interested in chemical engineering,” Bode said. “Just for those three to five minute long stories, you felt connected to them. You can understand them better, and it was a way to make a personal connection between what is normally just highly technical research and what humans care about most: humans.”

These personal introductions will be the beginning to a technical talk that will take place at the end of the program.

Amanda Hertel, a sophomore from Shawnee majoring in chemical engineering, said that she appreciates the emphasis on art. Hertel also said that the idea incubators were very memorable and that she recommends the program to anyone pursuing research.

“Art can be found in every aspect of science, whether it's data collection, adding graphics or designing experiments,” Hertel said. “The art aspect of this program was … really important to me because, as an engineer, sometimes the arts and humanities can get overlooked.”