Interactive student art adds creative spark to STEM

A metal structure to which are added dark plexiglass triangles hangs above a staircase in the STEM Complex.

“The actual design is so different from the original that you wouldn’t recognize it, and part of it is thanks to the artists. They helped the visually pleasing side of it take a big step up.” 

— Elliott Carrière (civil engineering)

By Laura Darche

Eight students can now enjoy bragging rights for leaving their mark on the University and helping to make the future. Since early September, the brand-new STEM Complex has been home to two interactive works of art that these students created and constructed. They built the pieces – Surface Tension and Equilibrium – as part of the STEAM project, which combines the arts (“A”) with the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Talk about a dream summer job!

In March 2018, engineering students Devansh Shah, Keshav Deeljur, Marc Leblanc and Elliott Carrière won the Makerspace Challenge, which gave them the opportunity to produce prototypes for interactive works of art, and then build and install two of the creations in the STEM Complex in time for its September opening.

Visual arts students Sarah Hodgson, Lucy Oulanova, Hannah Lacaille and Elizabeth Lebedev were selected from among many candidates to join the two teams. Together, they worked tirelessly to complete the project in four months.

Breaking down barriers

“This project is an incubator for innovation because it involves making people who wouldn’t normally work together combine their respective expertise. It allows them to understand another discipline’s perspective and to realize that everyone’s contributions produce a richer result.” – Chantal Rodier, director, STEAM project

This major interdisciplinary initiative allowed participants to step outside their respective fields and taught them specific lessons. The art students are now aware of the "moments of force" affecting a structure, and the engineering students now consider the visual impact of the technical solutions they come up with.

“The actual design is so different from the original that you wouldn’t recognize it, and part of it is thanks to the artists. They helped the visually pleasing side of it take a big step up.” – Elliott Carrière (civil engineering)

Obviously, such an ambitious project demands a lot of monitoring and coordination, both by the professionals involved in constructing the STEM Complex and the two student teams. In the process, participants gained team management and project management skills.

“I’ve never built something giant before or had a budget to worry about, so it was good practice learning what it’s like to go through other people, having to get approvals, requests… You realize you need to manage your time a little better because when you ask for something, it may take a week before you get it.” – Elizabeth Lebedev (visual arts)

Students in a lab assemble triangular plexiglass pieces.

Elizabeth Lebedev and Hannah Lacaille assemble Equilibrium.


In science, “equilibrium” refers to a state of balance between two opposing forces, which is exactly what this structure represents, activating as people climb the staircase over which it hangs. Bonus: the work supports the STEM Complex architects' goal of encouraging people to use the immense staircase reaching every floor of the building.

Students: Elliott Carrière (civil engineering), Hannah Lacaille (visual arts), Elizabeth Lebedev (visualarts), Marc Leblanc (civil engineering).

An unparalleled opportunity

Students finding a summer job in their field are often the exception to the rule. Sarah Hodgson, who is interested in a career in public art, was delighted by the opportunity to apply the theory she learned in class to a real-life setting, and to get a sense of what it would mean to earn a living as an artist. The same was true for engineering students like Devansh Shah, who discovered a new dimension to his studies through the project.

“We’ve conceptualized a lot of projects in engineering, but rarely did we get to actually build one. So this was a good project to link all the theory that I’ve learned to something that was hands on, where I could see my mistakes and make my thought processes better.”– Devansh Shah (engineering)

Other students – Laura Weller (biology), Sarmad Nomani (computer engineering) and Ali Sanaknaki (computer science) – also volunteered to work with the Surface Tension team simply for the experience. Alumnus Mohamed Hassan (B.Sc. Mechanical engineering'18), who was a Makerspace Challenge participant, was also a volunteer consultant. For him, the opportunity was too good to pass up. He jokes that there should be 20 projects like this every year.

The project also offered a golden opportunity to work with engineers, architects, contractors and the career artists involved to achieve high-quality results. This professional supervision was exciting and rewarding.

“They guide us and show us the best way to do even the little things. They’re not doing the work for us, but definitely pushing us the way we should be going.” – Marc Leblanc (civil engineering)

Students in the Sandbox assemble wavy plexiglass triangles.

Keshav Deeljur, Sarah Hodgson, Devansh Shah and Sarmad Nomani work on the Surface Tension prototype.

Surface Tension

This wall representing a wave is composed of triangles whose surface reacts to the movement of passersby by undulating. Inspired by the Ottawa River, the work illustrates the interconnectedness of disciplines through the operational cohesion of various components, each representing a discipline: visible mechanisms for engineering, delicate aerial collages for art and illustrations based on enlargements of micro-organisms collected from the Ottawa River to represent science.

Students: Mohamed Youssef Benmchich (civil engineering), Elliott Carrière (civil engineering), Hannah Lacaille (visual arts), Elizabeth Lebedev (visualarts), Marc Leblanc (civil engineering).

Motivated mentors

None of this would have been possible without Hanan Anis, holder of the Chair in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design and Makerspace Challenge supervisor; Chantal Rodier, director of the STEAM project and Campus Public Art consultant; and Lorraine Gilbert, director of the Department of Visual Arts.

The result of an unprecedented collaboration, this interdisciplinary pilot project required a lot of work but also brought about new approaches to inter-departmental collaboration, with lasting results. In addition to offering students an incredible experience, the project will leave the University community with interactive works of art that enhance the new STEM Complex and the campus as a whole.

Join us for the STEM Complex Open House on September 20 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m (150 Louis-Pasteur).

STEAM Project group.

STEAM project team: Back row: Dan McTavish (Architect, Perkins + Will); Matt Johnston (Project lead, Perkins + Will); Claudio Brun del Re (Chief Architect, Facilities); Chantal Rodier; Elizabeth Lebedev; Hannah Lacaille; Mohamed Hassan; Marc LeBlanc; Keshav Deeljur; Lucy Oulanova; Samiddha Aryasinghe (Chief, Major Projects, Facilities); Charles Azar (Subject Matter Expert, Architecture, Facilities). Front row: Andrew Frontini (Design Principal, Perkins + Will); Elliott Carrière; Laura Weller; Devansh Shah; Sarah Hodgson; Hanan Anis.

Design labs

Bonnie Findley

Seven students sit on the floor surrounded by triangular pieces of art.

The Surface Tension team takes a break from assembling their work of art in the STEM Complex.

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