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Creative Campus Project Benefits from Different Kind of Lab

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Students experiment during IdeaLab.

Criticism can be hard to take, but not for the team of faculty and students involved with The Secret Life of Public Spaces project. They spent the 2011-12 academic year brainstorming, problem solving, designing—and yes, critiquing—to develop elements of this unique project, which featured dance performed in unexpected spaces, incorporating student-designed structures.

The team met most Friday evenings in the Stuckeman Family Building to participate in IdeaLab, a collaborative environment where constructive criticism was welcomed.

According to Architecture student Veronica Patrick, IdeaLab was a “creative outlet.” “I definitely think IdeaLab had an important influence on the progression of my project [for the dance performance], and getting the viewpoints of other disciplines really opened up a whole new world of ideas and designs,” she said.

The goal of The Secret Life of Public Spaces—funded by a Creative Campus Innovations Grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters—was to elevate the role of the performing arts on campus and in the community. The project team, led by Amy Dupain Vashaw, audience and program development director for the Center for the Performing Arts, included faculty and students from Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Dance, and Engineering.

Built around a collaboration with renowned Los Angeles-based Diavolo dance theater, the eighteen-month project culminated in April 2012 with two unique performances—one created by Diavolo and one by students. The student piece featured dancers performing on and around structures created during IdeaLab.

According to Marcus Shaffer, project team member and assistant professor of architecture, the students benefited from the interdisciplinary collaboration. “The students learned firsthand how collaboration across disciplines contributed to products that would have never come out of just one discipline. There was also a lot of process and knowledge moved from one group to another, like model-making, rendering, wiring, and programming.”

IdeaLab followed an intensive ten-day collaboration in California in summer 2011 between some of the Penn State team members and Diavolo performers. Diavolo includes dancers, gymnasts, and actors who collaboratively create performances on chairs, stairways, and moving structures. 

In addition to Vashaw and Shaffer, the project team included Elisha Clark Halpin, associate professor of dance and head of the Dance program; Peter Aeschbacher, associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture; Khanjan Mehta, director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program; and Timothy Simpson, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and director of the Learning Factory.

The $251,670 grant, awarded to the Center for the Performing Arts in 2010 following a competitive selection process, was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

For more information on The Secret Life of Public Spaces, visit

-By Jennifer Pencek