The National Institute for Computational Sciences

Artistic Video Vision and Supercomputer-accelerated Science Meet in UT Pilot Project Class

By Scott Gibson

Whether life imitates art, art imitates life, or both philosophies hold true, most people would agree that artistic expression has the power to capture and engage the imagination.

Putting the use of aesthetics and artistic flair to the test in delivering scientific messages as part of a pilot project class, a group of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students developed videos about the work of researchers associated with the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS).

The students received guidance and support from their instructor, UT Art Professor Norman Magden, and Christal Yost of NICS. In the course, the students not only created videos that will be useful to NICS but also learned how to interview scientists and present scientific information using unconventional methods.

The idea for the project began when Yost, during the course of collecting NICS publicity resources, became keenly aware of the power of video in science communication and what constituted effective use of the medium. Inspired by the possibilities of video, she suggested to Magden, whom she’d come to know through their mutual involvement in the local Knoxville artist community, that a science video project involving art students would benefit the students as well as NICS.

Yost and Magden discussed a pilot and taught the first class in spring semester 2012. To explain the process and importance of producing the videos, Yost showed the students 3- to 5-minute science communication videos and outlined the development process and importance of the messages.

In their project, the students interviewed principal investigators (PIs) to learn about the science and produce concise videos featuring the results of the research.

Yost shared with the students the instances in which the videos might be helpful. Those included educating the public about the research of the project team and emphasizing the significance of supercomputers, computer modeling and simulations in the acceleration of scientific discovery.

She also found PIs to work with the students, provided them with background information about the research, and offered tips on how to develop their interview questions. Yost stressed to the students the importance of being punctual, prepared, well organized and concise in their interactions with the PIs so as to convey professionalism and respect for the researchers’ time.

Besides sharpening their preparedness and professionalism, the students toured the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences and NICs and saw first-hand the UT-managed supercomputers. They also learned about Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and were afforded the opportunity to shoot some video segments there for their videos.

Magden, Yost and other NICS team members provided the students with feedback during a series of critiquing sessions aimed at adding perspective and constructive suggestions, as well as affirmations of the students’ accomplishments.

Commonly reflected in the comments of the students about the project was the challenge of editing the videos to contain just the right content to accurately express the science while keeping the presentation visually interesting.

“It was really different than what I’ve been doing for every single other video project,” says student McKenzie Pearce. “I learned that it’s a lot harder to consolidate into a really short amount of time the exact message that they’re trying to get across. It took quite a while to get it right.”

The students also learned about science by examining the research.

“It was just really interesting to find out exactly what all these experiments are and kind of how they work,” says student Carey Ellen Pettigrew.

Pettigrew explains that she and her classmates were able to spend a considerable amount of time with a scientist learning how using a supercomputer accelerated the pace of his study and allowed him to pursue aspects of inquiry that otherwise would not be feasible.

“Our scientist had a lot of experience,” says student Katie Forgy. “It was really interesting to hear him talk. He was excited about the things he was studying. He was really engaging. He got us interested in what he was interested in just by interacting with him.”

Student Yuan Jing viewed the video project as a means of adding some practicality to the theoretical side of her art studies.

“We do more conceptual things [in the school of art], but the communication side of this project is more useful for a company or a job,” Jing says.

While practicality and clear communication were certainly central aims of the project, Magden explains that he and NICS established it with the idea that the students would use their artistic sensibilities to produce videos with more panache than the typical mass media product. The students were faced with the challenge of fusing avant-garde design with scientific details in brief packages.

“It [the project] introduces art students to another area of subject matter and brings that area into their own lexicon to produce images,” Magden says. “It made a difference that the scientists were actually using visuals themselves, which seemed to be a wonderful parallel for the student to do that kind of thing as well, but from their own point of view.”

Student Video Subject Matter and PIs

Subject  PI
Materials science and Nanotechnology   Miguel Fuentes-Cabrera
Astrophysics Bronson Messer
Biochemistry Jerome Baudry


The National Institute for Computational Sciences is a joint effort of the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Located on the campus of ORNL, NICS is a major partner in NSF’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, known as XSEDE.