Written by Barb Consiglio.
Breaking the Ice
A biologist, a musician, an astrophysicist and a mathematician walk into a bar. No joke — it’s what happened in 2010 when some new faculty members at The Ohio State University created an informal social group to get to know one another and their new city, Columbus. They initially went to happy hours, concerts and festivals together — but these like-minded academics quickly found common ground across their unique areas of study, sparked new ideas, and embarked on grant-funded research projects.
“Our group grew organically from a social hangout to something more because we’re all extremely passionate,” said Roman Holowinsky, chair and co-founder of The STEAM Factory, and associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Mathematics. “We realized that crossing our areas of research could produce interesting results and have a real impact. Now we’re helping some truly unique projects get off the ground.”
The group called themselves The STEAM Factory because they had members across all areas of research: science, technology, engineering, arts & humanities and mathematics. Today, there are about 135 STEAM Factory members across 70 disciplines and 20 colleges at Ohio State.
How It All Began
The founders of The STEAM Factory were attending the annual Festivus holiday market when they saw COSI, the prominent hands-on science center in central Ohio, using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. And then it clicked— participating in these unconventional, collaborative exhibitions would be a great way to display the cutting-edge research they were working on at Ohio State. Four faculty members set up a vendor table at 400 W. Rich’s farmers market, and conducted hands-on demonstrations of their different areas of study.
“We knew that we wanted to be a part of the unique, creative vibe of 400 W. Rich, so when we saw a “for lease” sign, it was a no-brainer for us to move in upstairs,” said Holowinsky. “The space is open to members anytime, so you can usually find people here working and collaborating on their projects.”
Today, members of the STEAM Factory meet regularly to conduct their creative, cross-disciplinary research inside the iconic 400 W. Rich building. It’s located in Columbus’ resurgent Franklinton neighborhood, a former manufacturing building transformed into a massive space for artists and collaborators. The comeback of this once-dilapidated neighborhood was spurred by artists and intellectuals like those housed at 400 W. Rich, and Franklinton’s reputation is quickly growing as a trendy, up-and-coming destination.
Innovation happens daily at The STEAM Factory, with many projects finding success and funding through federal grants. Projects such as the Buckeye VR project, which uses smartphone-powered virtual reality headsets to teach math and physics concepts in 3D, are made possible thanks to the program’s support. Through the STEAM Powered Projects fund, researchers can access pre-grant money to aid in the preparation and pursuit of a coveted federal grant, setting them up for future success.
Another STEAM Powered Project recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation, examining the relationship between social media and the dissemination of information during a health crisis. While social media can be a powerful tool to spread useful information quickly, bad information, misconceptions and faulty advice can just as quickly spread and exacerbate the crisis, a challenge this project is confronting.
One of The STEAM Factory’s missions continues to be engaging in the broader community. The group participates in public events like Franklinton Fridays at 400 W. Rich, and has partnered with local organizations such as COSI and the neighboring Columbus Idea Foundry, a community workshop, learning center and creative space. They also involve the broader community to keep the spirit of collaboration at the forefront, such as conducting Project Color, a study of colorblindness that paired members of The STEAM Factory with the artists at 400 W. Rich.
“The key to innovation is to meet and engage with different types of people and groups,” said Holowinsky. “Being a part of The STEAM Factory gives members an opportunity to speak with people they might never have met on campus — someone from a different department, a city councilman, or an artist. If you’re open to new ideas, they can come from anywhere. That’s the core value of our organization. We thrive on a willingness to challenge assumptions and we learn from that.”