Toggle menu M e n u

You are here

Engine for Integration

By Alex Piazza

A designer worked with a pediatrician to develop a video game that helps young people with diabetes monitor their blood sugar.

A painter teamed up with an astrophysicist, musician and computer scientist to create a visualization that simulates the experience of flying through dark matter in our universe.

And a studio artist partnered with medical researchers to explore how creative projects can help support Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

These examples from the University of Michigan are part of an important trend in higher education: integration of the arts with sciences, engineering and medicine.


Gunalan Nadarajan

“There is an increasing awareness among academic institutions that conventional structures of disciplines and departments, and the organization of teaching, learning and research around those structures, are outdated in relation to the complex problems all graduates are likely to face in a rapidly changing world,” said Gunalan Nadarajan, dean and professor at U-M’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. “Complex problems require complex skill sets that are not easily found or restricted to specific disciplines or knowledge domains.”

Nadarajan served on a 22-person committee, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that examined the effect of integrating the humanities and arts into sciences, engineering and medicine in higher education.

The committee produced a report, released in May, that features promising evidence that some integrative approaches are associated with positive learning outcomes, such as improved written and oral communication skills, empathy and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.

Beyond positive learning outcomes, integrating the arts with sciences, engineering and medicine also fosters new research that helps develop creative solutions to address the world’s most pressing challenges. For this reason, the School of Art and Design appointed Jane Prophet this month as its first associate dean for research, creative work and strategic initiatives.

“Research in any specific discipline today needs to be constantly vigilant to the perspectives, tools and methods of other disciplines that are relevant to illuminating or approaching the complex problem at hand,” Nadarjan said.

Breaking Down Silos


Students participate in the Alliance for the Arts in Research
Universities' Emerging Creatives Summit. Photo: Edgar Cardenas

Scientists work with scientists. Engineers work with engineers. Artists work with artists.

This was a common perception of the environment at research universities nationwide.

“Research universities are sort of a different breed,” said Maryrose Flanigan, associate director of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, housed at U-M. “Students often went straight into their disciplines very heavy, and they wouldn’t spend much time moving laterally across different disciplines.”

Cue ArtsEngine. In 2006, U-M launched its interdisciplinary arts initiative, which today is considered a national model for integrated curricular and co-curricular programming.

With representation from architecture and urban planning, art and design, music, theatre and dance, engineering and information, ArtsEngine inspires, fosters and strengthens intellectual collisions and durable collaborative practices driven by the arts, including research.

ArtsEngine sponsors events and workshops, develops academic courses and provides funding so students and faculty can further integrate the arts in fields across campus. The initiative recently awarded its first Faculty Interdisciplinary Arts Research Grant, supporting a project involving new material processes inspired by biological imaging. ArtsEngine also has awarded grants to graduate research projects that have ranged from an exhibition of text-based artworks that explore intersections of gender, sexuality and misogyny to a project working to integrate underwater sculpture with video testimony and animation to examine trauma, truth and healing.


Debra Mexicotte, Maryrose Flanigan and Gabriel Harp

“Students today have a more holistic approach when it comes to their education, which is why we create opportunities for them to integrate across a variety of disciplines,” said Debra Mexicotte, ArtsEngine managing director. “And external sponsors who support new research are increasingly rewarding projects with an interdisciplinary approach, so it’s incredibly important for us to adapt and partner with colleagues across campus. We’re really trying to change the culture of the university so the culture of greater society can improve.”

As part of that culture change, ArtsEngine helped launch the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) in 2012 to help foster and champion the role of the arts and design in research universities nationwide. U-M is one of more than 40 alliance partners that work together to acknowledge, embed and seamlessly integrate the arts into the realms of basic knowledge, teaching and learning, and in everyday practice.

To further promote arts integration, a2ru hosts two national conferences each year to examine all aspects of arts integrative research and collaboration. The alliance produces and disseminates insights regarding new forms of emerging research and creative practices. And a2ru also convenes workshops to help translate organizational research into policy and practice.

“Creating new culture is a big component of arts research, and so in many ways, a2ru is helping transform the culture of research universities across the country,” said Gabriel Harp, research director for ArtsEngine and a2ru.

ArtsEngine and a2ru are just two of the many programs at U-M that integrate the arts with sciences, engineering and medicine. Mcubed, for example, stimulates innovative research and scholarship by distributing real-time seed funding to multi-unit, faculty-led teams. Mcubed has funded several interdisciplinary research projects, 30 of which have featured faculty from architecture and urban planning, art and design, or music, theatre and dance.

Where creativity comes to life

Arts & Culture


ArtsEngine-supported artist/researcher Kirandeep Bhumber
performs an exploration of South Asian cultural identity and memory
based on a traditional weaving practice. Photo: Andrew Howell

U-M has a rich history of supporting, creating and encouraging a culture of art.

The Ann Arbor campus features more than 20 libraries, several museums, more than a dozen art galleries and collections, many performing arts venues, a botanical garden and arboretum, public spaces, installations, performances and events, exhibitions, readings and recitations.

One of those museumsthe U-M Museum of Artwelcomed Christina Olsen as its new director in October. Olsen has a distinguished track record of innovation in merging the scholarly and community components of art museums, which coincides with the university’s greater commitment to integrate the arts with sciences, engineering and medicine.

U-M also is home to more than 200 student arts organizations and projects dedicated to promoting collaboration and developing creative solutions to address important societal challenges.

Learn more about U-M arts and culture at


Do you want to learn more about research at U-M? Subscribe to Michigan Research