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(Almost) Living and (Definitely) Learning at Fallingwater

Chatham Interior Architecture Student sketching in notebook near Fallingwater

One afternoon, Kyra Tucker, director of interior architecture programs, walked into Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural masterpiece Fallingwater to find her students sitting on the floor with their shoes off.

I said ‘What are you guys doing?’” she recalls, laughing. “‘[Chatham has] a reputation to protect here!’”

But Tucker was joking, and the high level of comfort was entirely appropriate for the situation, a weeklong residency for students in the Bachelor of Interior Architecture (BIA) program, also offered for students in the Master of Interior Architecture program. While students don’t sleep at Fallingwater – they stay in new residential facilities nearby – they spend plenty of time in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture – for instruction, to work on projects, or just to absorb their surroundings.

“We had hours and hours in Fallingwater
to sketch and take photographs. We could explore whatever we wanted,” says Mark Shorthouse ’17. “It’s not like we were lounging on the beds, but we were in there barefoot. We were going down to the private swimming pond,” a sheltered spot directly underneath the house.

Most of the roughly 200,000 people who visit Fallingwater each year go on one of the regularly scheduled tours that move through the building like clockwork. Tours last about an hour, and shoes are required. Visitors typically take a few photos, browse in the gift shop, and hop back in their cars to go home.

Chatham students have a much longer and more intensive interaction with the house and site. Says Hallie Dufour ’18, “It was really amazing that we got to experience it more deeply than everybody else.”

Fallingwater has had programs for visiting students and educators for about twenty years. Made of ad hoc groups of individuals from different locations, these have been available “for anyone who wants to register,” explains Fallingwater Curator of Education Ashley Andrykovich. In contrast, Chatham’s program is solely for its own students and is tailored specifically to the University mission and program curriculum.

Says Tucker: “One of our University initiatives is sustainability. Fallingwater, we decided, would be a sustainability mission course. It is really based around Frank Lloyd Wright being the original ‘organic architect.’” It is also an official part of the Maymester schedule, and BIA students are required to attend in their first year.

Chatham’s program was unique at Fallingwater this year. But even if other universities follow Chatham’s lead, it will remain a rare experience. “We only have the capacity to do programs with two or three universities each year,” says Andrykovich.

The student experience at Fallingwater begins with a silent hike that starts at High Meadow. Students are required to turn off their phones, which don’t get much reception out there anyway. “We ask the students to unplug and be silent. We actually collect their cell phones for this part,” says Andrykovich. The approach places an emphasis on contemplation and observation. “We hike through the meadow down to Bear Run, and the landscape changes in ways that are observable three or four different ways during that hike.” Students are encouraged to sketch on the hike, as they will be encouraged throughout the week.

Chatham Interior Architecture students sit together to sketch and talk at Fallingwater

Graduate student Heidi Tabor, MIA ’17 found the phone-free approach “a little intimidating at first.” But it was one of several things “that pushed you outside of your comfort zone. I think I grew that way.”

The residency week blends contemplative study with industrious instruction and studio work. Andrykovich explains that students
do “a combination of sustained looking, sketching, and experiencing the house, combined with exercises that are designed to push them to think about the design themes that are at play in Fallingwater.”

For the undergraduates, one of the first design exercises, described in written assignments as a “sculpture light intervention,” is otherwise known as a lantern or lamp. It was an opportunity to consider “different types of lighting, how it can be manipulated, colors of light, textures,” says Dufour.

Shorthouse adds, “Our projects needed to be implemented in Fallingwater itself…to look as if they were originally built there.” Students would photograph their model light fixtures in place in Fallingwater for use in their portfolios.

“They came up with some really innovative, extremely cool things,” says Tucker.

A second exercise was to design a screen or scrim to be placed somewhere in the house to frame a particular view. “The lantern had them focusing inward, and the screen helped them connect the inside with the outside,” Tucker explains. “Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I just love this.”

While enhanced design skills are important, Tucker also finds success in developing a studio culture in which students work together successfully.

“What I am finding they get from it is a very close experience with each other, so we are building a studio culture, not just relationships with friends through social media. We need that, because that’s how it is in the workforce. That is how great things are accomplished. Together.”

Dufour agrees. “It brought me and the other students together, especially students I had not known before,” she says.

The program uses the rare experience of a unique building to teach lessons about interior architecture that are applicable to all aspects of future careers in professional practice. The student response to the Fallingwater program is categorically enthusiastic.

“It’s a super intensive, immersive, creative studio experience,” says Shorthouse. “I felt that I had really grown as a designer in a way I had not felt up to that point. It gave me more confidence that I am a creative person and I could create designs.”

“It opened my eyes more to the world and what I was seeing,” says Tabor.

Learn more at youtube/chathamu.

Applied Data Science Analytics and Stephanie Rosenthal, PhD

Stephanie Rosenthal, PhD

Look, I love being a writer. I went to school for this stuff, three times. But that was before I knew that data science was a thing, how cool it is, and the kinds of job (and salary!) prospects that are out there for people who study it.

Chatham Assistant Professor of Applied Data Analytics Stephanie Rosenthal filled me in. “Companies are using data science analytics today all over the place,” she tells me, and gives a bunch of examples, which I’m not even going to pare down for you, because that’s how excited I am:

  • Amazon.com and other websites use data analytics to determine what products to recommend to you and even what to charge for them.

  • “Walmart is famous for knowing exactly what to ship to every store at every time, because they track everything—what comes in, what goes out, what the weather was like—whether people tend to buy hot dog buns when there’s a hurricane approaching in addition to toilet paper and bottled water. They know all of these things about collective behavior based on our purchases and demographics.”
  • Credit card fraud is identified using data science analytics “That’s why you’ll get a call as soon as one purchase is made that is out of character for you,” says Rosenthal. “They’ve developed models to see what your normal behavior is, so they can see what’s out of the ordinary—either because a lot of different people are suddenly buying something, or because you’re buying something that seems out of character. You get a phone call because someone did that math.”
  • “Your Google search results look different from mine because they’re based on what we’ve searched for in the past,” Rosenthal says.
  • If you see a rectangle drawn around your face in a photograph that you’re viewing on your phone or computer screen, that’s data analytics, too. “Someone has gone through and labeled faces and worked out how to detect them—in general, what they’re looking for is tone gradients, where the forehead, cheeks and chin are lighter than the eyes, nose, and mouth regions—and that’s just built into cameras today.”
  • “The traffic information you get from your GPS or your phone is possible because it collects data from other phones in cars—whether they’re moving or not. Some of the cool new research I’ve seen coming out of CMU figures out how to change the timing of traffic lights based on the number of cars that are waiting there, so when there is a lot of traffic coming, it can be pushed through faster.”
  • Voice recognition programs like Siri and Alexa are built using data analytics around natural language.

In general, says Rosenthal, data science and data analytics try to get information from data—analyzing patterns to come up with insights. What’s the difference between the two? “Very roughly,” she says, “I would say that data analytics is about running statistics on data, and data science is about collecting it, getting it in the right format, and visualizing it in ways that are productive. We’ll be doing both, which is why the major is called Applied Data Science Analytics.”

Data science and data analytics are some of the highest paying jobs in the job market today. People all want to make better use of their data. It’s not just Microsoft and Facebook and Google who are hiring those people; it’s also UPMC and Highmark, and marketing, travel companies, school systems, consulting firms. Our goal is to prepare students to be successful in any of those places.”

This fall, Rosenthal is teaching a research methods course and an introduction to programming course. “I learned to program a long time ago, from my gym teacher,” she says. “I wasn’t really taught why things work, just how to code. So my goal for the Intro to Programming course is to try to really give students insight into why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Rosenthal will also be co-teaching the Capstone Seminar for some business courses with Professor and Director of Business Programs Rachel Chung. For example, students in the management information systems major will be helping the Master of Arts in Food Studies students open their new coffee lab.

It’s a business that’s starting up; there’s no reason our students shouldn’t be able to help analyze what their business plan should look like,” she says. 

Rosenthal plans to provide students with more hands-on experience by involving them in her own research, too. “I’m interested in how we can collect data more intelligently and also to teach data collection and research methods for effectively,” she says. She is developing a data collection platform to deploy on campus. Students in Rosenthal’s current classes are researching where it should be located, what it should do, and how it could be marketed. Once deployed, students in the Applied Data Science Analytics major will be able to use the data collected by the platform in their classes and also display their work for the campus to see.

Rosenthal is also interested in “producing English explanations of what data analytics say.” In computer security, for example, experts often monitor networks by hand, because of lack of trust that artificial intelligence would make the right decision. “We can help people trust systems better if we do a good job of explaining why they should,” she says.

Chatham’s Applied Data Science Analytics program teaches students to critically identify, communicate, and analyze challenging analytical problems, effectively organize and manage datasets, and develop robust solutions. They are also equipped to evaluate ethical, privacy, and security challenges in their fields of practice.