Introduction and Background - Savannah Szemethy

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CHEM-ENG 535: Microfluidics and Microscale Analysis in Materials and Biology

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Microfluidic chip featuring bright, bold colors with crisp, clean lines. Created by Savannah Szemethy.

Within the past 15 years, there has been a growing push to reform STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to include the Arts and thus become STEAM.1 Recent studies have shown that STEM-based education, especially engineering education at the university level, focuses too heavily on “chalk and talk,” or lectures that fail to engage students.2 Additionally, project-based engineering education is centered on reaching the “right” answer and punishing failure, even though failure is a tool for learning.2 With these strict educational methods, it is difficult for students to exercise any form of creativity or innovation, as they must follow formulaic, routine models in order to achieve the “right” outcome.2 As a result, students are left feeling discouraged with the belief that failure is ultimately negative and that nothing can be learned from it.2

Unlike STEM education, however, artistic education does not punish failure but instead grades students on their effort and creative thought process.2 Even if an art project is unsuccessful, a student can still achieve full marks so long as they put in effort and provide proof of careful thought and planning, which encourages students to follow their creativity and experiment with new methods.2 As a result, the STEAM movement has arisen to reform STEM education at the high school and classroom levels to incorporate this artistic educational practice to use failure as a learning tool and foster creativity and innovation within science.1,2,3,4,5 Much of early childhood education, in fact, has been employing a STEAM-based education model for years, so the challenge lies with reforming secondary and tertiary education, which is limited by this previously described notion of “disciplinary egocentrism.”2,3

Microfluidics and STEAM

Microfluidic devices are the perfect media to bridge the gap between art and science. Because of their small scales, microfluidic chips have a low Reynolds number, thus creating a very smooth laminar flow, allowing for the production of fluid-based artwork. Additionally, flow in microfluidic devices is very well-controlled and can be easily manipulated via the use of a syringe pump.

An ideal design for an artistic microfluidic device involves a layer of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) that is plasma-fused to a glass slide. Channels are molded into the PDMS and can be filled with a dyed fluid. These PDMS microfluidic systems also have a high channel resolution, so any artistic linework will appear crisp and clean. When set against a white background with bright lighting, the colors of the dye solution in the channels will pop, creating brilliant artwork. The precise flow control of microfluidic devices also allows for the creation of patterns and gradients, which add further artistic detail.

Albert Folch

Albert Folch is a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington and was one of the pioneers of microfluidic art. His lab focuses on the concept of BAIT,6 or Bringing Art Into Technology. BAIT integrates art and technology through the idea that someone can be "baited" into learning more about science through an appreciation of artwork.6

Microfluidic devices comprise a significant portion of Folk's artistic portfolio. The Folk lab's designs focus on geometric shapes, bright colors, and bold gradients.6

As well as static pictures, the Folk lab's portfolio includes videos of their devices as they are in the process of filling in order to demonstrate the dynamic nature of microfluidics.6 Some of Folch's work is synchronized to music in order to show the manipulation of flow.

Felice Frankel

Felice Frankel is a chemical engineering research scientist at MIT who specializes in scientific photography. Her goal is to focus on visual expression in order to increase the public's interest, appreciation, and understanding of science.7 Through her photography, she demonstrates the natural beauty of science. She is very focused on STEAM-based outreach and has developed online courses to teach and promote science and engineering photography.7

A portion of her work includes microfluidic devices. Her crisp, clean photos capture the intricacy and detail of microfluidic channels and also highlight the brilliance of color.

J Tanner Nevil and Austin Day

J Tanner Nevil and his student Austin Day from UC Berkley branched into microfluidic art because they desired a "microfluidic chip that looked cool."8 Nevil and Austin's art focuses on microscale pictures of architecture and uses intricate linework.


1. Maeda, J. The Steam Journal 2013, 1 (1), 1–3.

2. Connor, A. M.; Karmokar, S.; Whittington, C. International Journal of Engineering Pedagogy (iJEP)2015, 5 (2), 37.

3. Sharapan, H. YC Young Children 2012, 67.

4. Kim, Y.; Park, N. Communications in Computer and Information Science Computer Applications for Security, Control and System Engineering 2012, 115–121.

5. Yakman, G.; Lee, H. Journal of The Korean Association For Science Education 2012, 32 (6), 1072–1086.

6. Folch, A. ART. (accessed Feb 22, 2019).

7. Frankel, F. Felice Frankel Photography. (accessed Apr 11, 2019).

8. Newitz, A. Microfluidic Art on a Chip. (accessed Apr 11, 2019).