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Faculty Spotlight: Cary Staples

Thirty years ago, Dr. Cary Staples came to UTK specifically to join a Research 1, Land Grant University. For her, the possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration and teaching opportunities within our community have not only been the reason she has stayed, but they are also the driving aspects of all her work. She’s devoted her time at UT  to creating a classroom atmosphere that blends professional rigor and studio experimentation with liberal arts values. In her current work, Staples has been designing on-the-ground, online, and collaborative learning experiences. Her current projects involve creating gaming environments to teach Design, Education, and French.

Staples’s teaching philosophy is best exemplified in how she tries to structure her classes and their curriculum. “The most interesting questions arise from the current problems I try to solve, I use my curriculum to expose undergraduates to all aspects of the design process in my research,” she says.

This includes (1) developing tools and media to explore design concepts, ranging from the fundamentals of design thinking to complex creative thinking; and (2) coordinating opportunities for students to work with primary content authors to analyze content and experiment with new technologies on content delivery. As a result, Staples and her students have created several “Proof of Concept” pieces for NSF and NEH grants together. The collaboration process has been incredibly gratifying for her.

Recently, however, Staples has been thinking more about the idea of what she calls “sharing Visual Literacy,” and how it connects all designers. Staples believes this concept helps beginners, her students, understand the scope of the design community, and envision where they might make their own unique connections. “As students grow, helping them to connect Visual Literacy with innovative content, namely the research being generated at the university, became my goal,” she states.

Staples was fortunate enough to see this idea of sharing the Visual Literacy n in action recently while interviewing a student on their research. She recounts the moment below:

“After an interview for a fashion design position, a student completing research about the various uses for uranium as part of an installation proposal for the New Hope Center at Y-12 commented that the interviewer was most interested in her research about uranium and the idea of energy as a metaphor. She asked, ‘Who would have thought uranium and radiation would have applications in fashion design?’ I was the only one with my hand up.

It was a great full-circle moment. I could see that the student was beginning to grasp the creative and complex ways Visual Literacy can expand across various fields. Through guidance, the student began to form her own connection to Visual Literacy by blending the creativity of design with the structure of science, due to their similarities. Once the students break through the wall of designing a specific form and allow the content to dictate the form, it is so exciting to see them soar.”

What’s next for Staples? As she notes, the design field changes very quickly. She does realize, however, that embracing technology and innovation is part of the fundamental DNA of design. She saw her own research take a new direction back in 2011, as she reimagined existing Art and Architecture courses to focus on “The Idea of Design.” This change allowed students to explore the history of the profession through an analysis of how designers in the past might have used the materials, technology, and visual language of the time to create solutions to design briefs.

In this redesigned course, students discuss and debate various options rather than reciting a “correct answer.” These curriculum concepts are also coupled with an exploration of Game-based Learning, which features Staples’s new project: the “Design(er) META game” and the “App Farm” as vehicles to focus student attention on the foundational principles of design that were developed to support learning and collaboration in ArtD 150 (now GRDS 150). “The results have been rewarding to reap,” Staples says, “so I feel as though these changes, whatever they will be, are very welcome as they create new learning opportunities and reimagine the way we see teaching.”

“Throughout my career, I have learned, and learned to teach, through experimentation,” Staples notes, “taking risks has always helped me to adapt to new challenges and technologies. As the field has evolved and the students have become more and more focused on product and technology, I hope to encourage student confidence in uncertainty and failure by helping them learn to take risks.”