In 1998 Style featured Kruse after she received a scholarship to pursue what was then a highly unconventional education. Since then, VCU's engineering and sculpture departments have been integrating courses, encouraging students in both programs to work together. Today six students have followed Kruse's lead and are either dual-degreed or have a degree in art and are returning for a degree in engineering.
Kruse has exceeded expectations. She has been accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, Caltech, Stanford, Georgia Tech and the University of Texas at Austin some of the country's top mechanical-engineering graduate programs. She also has received a three-year National Science Foundation Scholarship worth $96,000 to support her during the early part of her four-to six-year graduate career. And this summer her art will be on display in shows around Richmond.
"It's like having your child win the Nobel Prize or something," says Daniel Cook, a professor in the mechanical engineering department.
Last week Kruse was maneuvering her robot around a room in the sculpture department. She had a few days to figure out how to add a voice-recognition device to the wheeled, circuit-laden thing she calls Curious George. "Basically if someone should step on it, it should scream," Kruse says of her senior design project.
"It fascinates me how things work, how humans interact with technology," she adds. "A lot of times there's a fuzzy line between what's art and what's technology."
In many ways Kruse has been the guinea pig for a revolutionary way to teach mechanical engineering, Cook says. "The people who started the program, Eric Sandgren, Bob Heinz and Henry McGee, had all worked at other institutions," he says, but they "didn't see any reason to walk down the same well-trodden path."
And that was a risk. "We were going out on a limb trying to integrate the whole sculpture/mechanical engineering thing and it could have failed miserably," Cook says. "Barb [Kruse] proves that we were right. We weren't just a bunch of hare-brained idiots bucking the standard wisdom of how things are done."
Kruse seems to have inspired other art and engineering students as well. "I've had more engineering students come to talk to me about grad school in the last couple of months than in the previous two years," Cook says. Similarly, he says, "Barb has helped a lot of the art students to break through this fear of technology."
So what's next? Cook says five professors (including him) are submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation. "We intend to develop a series of courses which will allow our students to experience this sort of art/engineering integration from the moment they walk through the doors of the school as freshmen until they finish up their senior year," Cook says.
The goal is to someday turn the program into what will be called the DaVinci Institute, the brainchild of former art-department head Joe Seipel and Sandgren, Cook says. "[It] will basically be a playground for artists and engineers to interact and do cool stuff."
As for Kruse, she is off to the University of California at Berkeley. She'll be working with professor Homayoon Kazerooni on what she says is "brand new technology never designed before."
"There are all these movies about robots taking over and ruining peoples' lives," she says. "Ideally I'd like to have my own research group and find more friendly applications for robotics." S