Iowa State will be on display at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State will be center stage in Washington, D.C., this summer when the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act and creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Photo by The Smithsonian.

The university will participate in the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is celebrating the 150-year partnership between land-grant universities, the USDA and communities. The festival will be June 27-July 1 and July 4-8 on the National Mall.

Inaugurated in 1967, the festival is one of the institution's highest-profile programs, attracting more than 1 million visitors each year. The Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage produces the 10-day cultural event. Each year, the festival features themes, such as "Rhythm and Blues," "NASA: 50 Years and Beyond" and "Tibetan Culture."

One festival theme this year, "Campus and Community: Public and Land-grant Universities and the USDA at 150," is being produced in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the USDA.

Last spring, the APLU invited land-grant universities to submit proposals to participate. Iowa State submitted two proposals under the direction of Associate Vice President for Research Chitra Rajan. The proposal from the College of Design and ISU Extension and Outreach, "Rise with the occasion: Land-grant institutions as platforms for knowledge, infrastructure, social innovation and entrepreneurship," was selected.

Universities (see sidebar) were chosen to exhibit four representative program areas: reinventing agriculture, sustainable solutions, transforming communities and building on tradition.

"The Folklife Festival is a pretty significant stage on which to promote ISU," said David Ringholz, associate professor and director of industrial design, who leads the team designing the exhibit.

"It's an opportunity for everyone to see ISU the way we see ourselves - as a top-tier, high-tech, cutting-edge, relevant university that is grappling with the most complicated problems of our era. That's top of mind for us as we put together this exhibit that will represent the university on the national stage," Ringholz said.

Putting the 'D' in land grant

Iowa State's exhibit, "Transforming Communities: Design in Action," will highlight the central role of design in the land-grant mission, and extension's past, present and future impact on communities.

The project involves the Offices of the Executive Vice President and Provost, Vice President for Research and Economic Development, and Vice President for Extension and Outreach; College of Design; University Relations; University Marketing; University Museums; and Information Technology Services.

Inspired by Abraham Lincoln's 1862 national call to "think anew, and act anew" to solve the monumental challenges of the era that spawned the Morrill Act, Iowa State's exhibit will be the only exhibit to focus on design's role in outreach. It will showcase the university as a leader in the unique, ongoing partnership between the College of Design and ISU Extension and Outreach in applying creative problem solving to find innovative solutions to communities' complex challenges.

High-tech backdrop, low-tech dialogue

"The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is about conversations," said Festival Technical Director Robert Schneider during a campus visit in March. "An exhibit's built environment is a backdrop to the dialogue, a way of bringing people in to the activities and personal interactions."

In Iowa State's exhibit, multi-layered messages will be communicated through a mix of advanced, interactive technology and old-fashioned, personal conversation.

Sketch by Anson Call.

Iowa State's T-shaped exhibit structure, made of a powder-coated, steel truss system, will be 26 feet by 18 feet and stand 10-feet tall at its highest point. On one side, TV monitors will show video of examples of the university's completed and ongoing projects in Iowa communities - from affordable housing for flood recovery to Main Street economic development and diversity. It also will show innovative student design projects yet to be implemented. And one panel will display the inspirational Abraham Lincoln quote accompanied by a recording of it read by Simon Estes, adjunct professor of music and theatre.

The center column will have a 180-degree LED large-format display screen topped by a circular, ribbon-board LED crawl. These technologies will be integrated with four interactive touchscreen workstations on a table encircling the column. Here, visitors can play age-calibrated activity games to explore what design is and how designers think and create. For example, one children's game will guide the design for a butterfly habitat, while an adult game would focus on solving community challenges for seniors. As visitors complete their games, light pulses will travel up the column to the LED crawl, which will display their ideas. Seen from the tent's entrance, the column and crawl will help attract visitors into the exhibit.

Creative solutions

Various interactive activities will happen in two design performance spaces within the exhibit. In one area, design faculty and extension and outreach program specialists will conduct demonstrations, mini-workshops on creativity and interactive design charrettes (intense, collaborative design activities in which people brainstorm, discuss and draft solutions to a design problem). Video monitors, whiteboards and movable wall panels will aid their activities.

In the second area, ISU integrated studio arts lecturer Jennifer Drinkwater will renew her Morrill Hall interactive studio project, "Working Over Wood: Recomposing the Grant Wood Murals." Visitors can help recompose the nine-panel 1934 Grant Wood mural, "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow." Drinkwater recreated the mural on steel panels, allowing participants to position painted magnetic pieces to reflect their own interpretations.

ISU students have been invited to enter a competition to create a 3-D, interactive feature - a constructive tabletop activity that teaches visitors about design thinking.

In its entirety, "Design in Action" offers many levels of information and interactivity for visitors, says Lisa Fontaine, associate professor of graphic design and leader of the exhibit content team.

"We designed the exhibit so everyone comes away knowing that ISU does a lot of amazing and innovative things. We want them to know that design is not only about making lovely products, but also about thinking through creative solutions. The power of design thinking is as an agent of change."

On campus and beyond

When completed in late May, the exhibit will be displayed on campus for an open house and test of the technologies and games. It will be packed and shipped to Washington, D.C., in mid-June.

The ISU Alumni Association is hosting a reception for alumni and special guests at 6 p.m. June 27 at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. ISU President Steven Leath and Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Hoffman have been invited to a gala lunch at the Smithsonian. Leath and Vice President for Extension and Outreach Cathann Kress also will participate in Washington events surrounding the anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act.

"Transforming Communities: Design in Action" will be Iowa State's State Fair exhibit and will be part of the Farm Progress Show.