Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
I’m an associate arts professor from NYU in New York. I teach in a program called ITP (interactive telecommunications), which was the first graduate interactive design program in the US in 1979. It looks at technology and giving people access to tools and making things that would improve the quality of their lives. The focus at ITP has always been about how to use technology to build something for people rather than just the technology itself. That’s why the “interaction” part of the program is so important. Personally, I’m an artist. I’m currently making pop-up books and working with paper engineering, hence I teach the paper arts class which has been fantastic. Before I came to ITP I worked in the non-profit sector, I worked a lot with community access to technology, and in New York I also ran some of the programs around technology and social justice, and I started a curriculum around assistive technology, which is technology for people with disabilities.
Had you been to China before you moved here?
I came for 10 days two years ago to get a sense of what living in China would be like, and once I got here I knew I absolutely had to come here. This is why I’m excited about this spring. Now there are things like the Lantern Festival to do. This summer we’d like to do a big trek through the Northwest of China. Shanghai is such an interesting city though. It’s so vibrant, and there’s such a big community of people doing fantastic interesting work to engage with. We've been working with Xin Che Jian – the Maker Space – they invited our students to present their work. We hosted a two-day workshop here in collaboration with them of teachers and maker spaces. Educators came from Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai to talk about the work they do. Those kinds of conversations and interactions are really an interesting part of being here, being able to plug into what’s happening. Things are happening very quickly. There’s going to be Shanghai Maker Carnival next fall, and our students are going to have a table there.
Tell me more about the Interactive Media Arts program at NYU Shanghai, how is it different from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in New York?
ITP is graduate and IMA is undergraduate; so that was a big adjustment, and it’s a big experiment, and NYU Shanghai is the first place we brought the experiment. In this current semester, NYU Abu Dhabi has also launched their first foundation class. The students have been amazing, truly extraordinary. We didn't expect the overwhelming response to our program. The registration has completely exceeded our expectations which has been wonderful. The foundation class that Professor Belanger teaches is an introduction to programming and working with micro-controllers where students are taught to think through alternative interfaces and so on. The first six weeks of the class is an intensive introduction to everything, and the second half of the class is when students really delve deeply into what interests them. So we had an end of semester show, and that’s when we saw how much diversity existed in a single class. There was a student that made musical gloves, another student that did a project comparing the air quality index between Shanghai and New York, another student who did a project to encourage more sanitary use of public facilities, and another student who created a project to aid color detection for someone who was colorblind. That’s when you start to see that students really delve into and explore whatever interests them. We give free rein to our students to apply the technology they have learned to whatever they see as an opportunity for exploration.
Have any results of this experiment in the “big laboratory” of NYU Shanghai surprised you?
I hadn’t worked with undergraduate students too much before, so what surprised me in the most pleasant of ways is just how wonderful they are. Our students are just fantastic. They have put so much effort into their work, and with such a sense of playfulness as well, which has been really wonderful. We have these hopes that the students will do this, but the fact that they did it and totally exceeded our expectations was wonderful. The end of semester show last December was very gratifying because you could see the students felt they had accomplished something. What they did individually was great, and then when placed next to each other, all of their work was so varied and interesting. We have another show coming up on Friday, May 23rd.
If you had as much funding as you wanted, what would you do with the program?
Oh my. We’re looking forward to Pudong because our space is going to be a wonderful workspace. We’ve been able to purchase some things like laser cutters and 3D printers. What we do is we put the tools out there and we really let the students go for it. It would be great to give them more tools and to see what they would come up with. It would be wonderful to have some travel funds for students. Right now there’s Maker Carnival Shenzhen happening soon, but there was also Maker Faire in Italy last fall. I’d love to engage the students internationally with other makers, creators, and students like them in other parts of the world. It would be a spectacular experience to have international maker collaborations like that.
What do you hope your students will take away from the IMA program?
We encourage our students to learn how to learn. Working with technology, you are continuously having to teach yourself new things. We also try and encourage our students to “learn as they need” — that is to say that you don’t need to know everything before starting a new project. However, you do need to know what you might need to know (and how to go about learning it) to proceed. And ultimately, we really try to encourage our students to challenge themselves and not be afraid of failure.