by Larry Mallak, PhD, CPEM, FASEM
Why would college seniors in Engineering Management visit an art museum? If we’re serious about the art and science of engineering management, then let’s go experience some art. Since 2007, I’ve been taking my undergraduate Industrial Systems Management students to the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Institute of Arts (KIA) for a field trip. My first call to KIA with this request was met with bewilderment, but then they realized I was serious. Of course, the learning objectives are key to a successful visit.
With many students mired in problem sets and quantitative analyses, we need to prepare them to view the world more systemically. My objectives are twofold: 1) to help the student gain a deeper (or an initial) experience with art and science and 2) to understand how artists communicate meaning. We engineering managers should not be addicted to PowerPoint’s bullet charts if we’re going to be successful project managers and leaders.
As with most things, this year was different, so I called over the summer and asked if the museum would do a virtual tour for my class. I had done this tour for over a decade and had no intention of skipping it. Museum staff were game to this idea and we were the first virtual tour. Our docent, Dr. Frank Wolf, is an emeritus faculty member of our department at Western Michigan University. He taught operations research and engineering economy. Now, he teaches us how to find systems and engineering concepts in KIA artworks.
Connecting via Zoom, my students, Dr. Wolf, KIA director Jessica Sundstrom, and myself toured an exhibit titled “Cultural Encounters,” a collection of artworks from Asian immigrants to the Americas (which you’ll recall is North America excluding for the U.S. and Canada). These works embodied several types of processes—metal sculpture, master printmaking, watercolors, videos, and fiber art.
Rainforest XI: The Sharp Edge of Seasons. 2013.
Bernadette Indira Persaud. Acrylic on canvas. 22”x14"
For example, the art shown below is Indo-Caribbean from an artist who was born in Guyana. This is Rainforest XI by Bernadette Persaud. Her grandparents were laborers on a sugar plantation. The process of producing this painting is based on neo-Impressionist techniques to produce color and perspective. Colonialist pursuit of profits from clearing land to raise sugarcane removes land from the rainforest—a political, scientific, and environmental conflict. Although the artist’s depiction is a beautiful rainforest scene, there was much pain and sacrifice by her ancestors to reach this point. The systems view of this single art work contains many elements related to engineering management.
Over the years, we have seen many unique art works—installations depicting oil-ruined land, glassworks by Chihuly, Chinese prints, enchanting videos, and traditional paintings of people and landscapes. Each year, the class sees something different, but the lesson is the same—engineering managers and artists rely on color, perspective, processes, and materials to produce an output for an end user. We can learn a lot from artists—even when it’s virtual.
About the Author
Dr. Larry Mallak is an industrial engineer whose work on corporate ethnography is bringing new tools to balance the art and science of new product development. He’s a Professor of Industrial and Entrepreneurial Engineering & Engineering Management at Western Michigan University. Prior to his university appointment, he worked in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Premier Healthcare and he has worked as a science reporter for National Public Radio. His work has been featured in numerous outlets, including TEDx, Engineering Management Journal, WORK, and Industrial Management. He holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in Industrial & Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech, with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Illinois. Dr. Mallak is a Fellow of ASEM.