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PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Shields

Thinking Ahead

An innovative class at RPI asks students to imagine the future, and then to create it

By David King

‘Well, guys, you are here in Troy now. You made the trip, and you are just staring at a computer screen. Why don’t you get up and mingle?” a teaching assistant asks a large class of RPI students packed into the Flavour Café in Troy on this frigid Tuesday night. Professor Kathleen Ruiz has invited the 70-or-so students of her Media Studio: Imaging and Interactivity class for a viewing of their work. The students sit mostly quiet, some chatting lightly, others seemingly put off by the now-cramped quarters, most of them ogling the images that flash by on the large plasma screen that dominates the room.

But most of them are unmoved by the TA’s suggestion, and they sit or stand, entranced. They watch themselves on the screen becoming more beautiful: They suddenly sprout tattoos, or straighter hair, face-devouring smiles or rounder cheeks. They watch as they grow broken and old, as their teeth fall out, as their hair becomes wiry and gray, as their skin wrinkles like tire tracks in wet dirt, as they take on a sickly shade of yellow.

They watch as the city of Troy sprouts flowers, as bright cityscapes develop, cityscapes dominated by statues that could have been designed by Howard Roark. They watch as the city grows into the future with flying cars, towers that pierce the sky, and Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks cropping up absolutely everywhere. But no one’s image is the same as anyone else’s. No two students have imagined an identical future for Troy, or the same idea of what is beautiful for Troy or even what beauty or aging means to them.

Needless to say, this has not been the typical engineering-class experience for Ruiz’s students. They have spent the semester watching films like Why We Fight and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. They have read about photography, nanotechnology, feminism and philosophy. They’ve explored the ethical questions surrounding bioart and nanotechnology and they have channeled it all through the software at their disposal: Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver. The walls are covered with their creations in images of nanobots they have designed: some that save lives, clean blood, fight disease; others that mow lawns or tickle. On the screen, their imagined superheroes fight crime in Flash video, using powers such as superpatriotism.

Ruiz says she brought in so many disciplines because, “Challenge is good. It is good to challenge one’s belief systems. You have to look at things more clearly from multiple disciplines.”

Studio-lab instructor and performance artist Ryder Cooley says that Ruiz’s course provides first-year students a chance to find their voices. “This class gives them subjects, like feminism, they might not be dealing with in any of their classes; it has them think creatively and express themselves. We are telling them to put themselves out there and go for it.”

Student Marc Frey says the class is definitely more creative than the standard engineering courses he is used to. However, he notes the things he has done in the class “would be more of a hobby” than something he would employ in his future job. He says that watching students who don’t generally have much to do with Troy, the city where they go to school, has been a learning experience. “Most people think Troy is a dump, but it’s interesting to see what people perceive as negative and positive,” Frey says regarding what some students have imagined as Troy’s future. Some see polished, shiny office buildings; others see open space; yet others see chain businesses everywhere.

As some students disperse, quickly packing into cars three or four at a time to get back to campus, it becomes clear what was most interesting about this evening: Students at RPI were asked to consider the future of city that, beyond their time at college, many assume they’ll have as little to do with as possible.

Ruiz says that her class may be out of the norm for RPI, that it might make students think about things in ways they normally wouldn’t. “It’s their future, so it could be a little scary thinking about that,” she says amid the bustle of the crowded room. Then she smiles, looks around and says, “You know, I think these students are more than equipped to handle it. These aren’t even their final projects.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


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