As a high school student in Los Angeles, Rebecca Lai found herself at an unwanted crossroads.
Here interests were broad, running both into the arts and the sciences. But the strict demands of her high school curriculum left her little wiggle room to experiment; she felt she had to choose one path or the other. So she headed to Duke expecting to study biology.
It wasn't until she got to campus, poked around, took some classes and talked to some students and professors that she realized her passions could be combined. She eventually changed majors and is now studying computer science and the visual arts.
"I didn't even think of doing art at Duke at first," said Lai, a sophomore. "I had to talk to people doing artistic things to realize I could."
She chronicled this journey in a 2-minute animated video submitted to the Duke STEAMy Summer Challenge, which asked students to illustrate issues related to STEAM, a new term for interdisciplinary learning that joins the traditional STEM disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math with the Arts.
Her video won two awards in the challenge, including the grand prize, netting her $1,250 in prize money and the satisfaction of telling her own story. The video, titled "Seed," depicts a young woman puzzling over an apple -- representing the arts -- and an orange, representing the STEM fields.
Apples and oranges. Get it?
But then, an epiphany. From the roots where the apple tree and orange tree meet shared soil, the woman unearths a seed and plants it. It eventually grows large and healthy, a metaphorical mixing of arts and sciences.
"Because the combination of arts and sciences leads to so many new innovations, I associated that idea with plants, which grow and flourish if you take care of them," said Lai, who had never done animation prior to this project and mastered the necessary software on the fly. "I wanted to express the idea of STEAM through something organic. And I wanted to make the point that you don't need to choose one or the other when it comes to arts and sciences. When you combine the two, you see the best results."
The summer contest in which Lai participated was a precursor to a larger Duke STEAM Challenge now underway. It challenges interdisciplinary teams of students -- undergraduate, graduate and professional alike -- to work together on projects addressing real-world problems.