Layton Scholarship winners combine engineering, arts

Donaldo Almazan and Isaac Phillips are the winners of this year’s Phil Layton Scholarships. Almazan is a junior chemical engineering major and Phillips is a senior mechanical engineer. The scholarship is awarded annually to engineering students who have made significant contributions not only to their engineering studies, but also in the visual or performing arts.
Almazan is the co-founder of the Rice Art and Engineering Club, where creative students can combine their artistic or engineering skills on a variety of projects. Launched last fall, the group hosted an event where Rice students built robots and attached markers to them, then let them loose on sheets of paper, creating colorful artwork.
That event was born out of Almazan’s exerience in the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership’s (RCEL) ENGI 317 “Leadership Action Learning” course. Almazan says he was coached by RCEL’s Cesare Wright, who helped him hone his leadership skills to effectively conceive and execute the art event. While the project was a success, Almazan says the Art and Engineering Club still has some growing to do.
“As a new club, we don’t have a lot of funds yet,” said Almazan, who said he applied for the scholarship to help gain awareness for his group. “I’m hoping to use part of the funds from this award for our spring outreach.”
Almazan, a QuestBridge Scholar, said the Art and Engineering Club was born from his desire to see similar-minded people come together to create something new.
“With the opening of the Moody Center for the Arts, there’s a lot of new programming that will be coming to Rice,” he said. “That’s exciting. And linking engineers and artists in new situations should be part of that. I wanted to help grow this kind of community, where people who have an interest in both the arts and engineering can work together.”
Almazan has served as a mentor for the Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP), assisting incoming students with shoring up their math, science and engineering skills. He was a coach last summer for chemistry and physics, and is now what he considers to be a “peer coach,” working with the scholars as friends to help them succeed at Rice.
Phillips said he has always been interested in the arts, especially photography. As part of the “Home + Place” Art Project, created by Geoffrey Winningham, chair of humanities and professor of visual and dramatic arts, he was part of a group of Rice students who worked with local elementary school students on a photo project.
“We went into their classrooms and taught them about photography, helping them learn the basics,” he explained. “Then, we gave them cameras and in after-school sessions and on the weekends, took them around the city, letting them take photos of what they saw and experienced.”
He said the experience was a tremendous way for him to develop a different understanding of Houston, seeing it through the eyes of the students. It was also a way for him to connect with fellow Rice students who had an interest in the visual arts. Phillips said he doesn’t like the stereotype that engineers can’t be artists or are only interested in the problem sets and solutions that come with their major.
“I find that people with creative backgrounds make the best engineers,” he said. “They look at different ways to approach a problem to find a solution, and they are able to see things from a different perspective.”
Phillips is part of the group of students who founded the McMurtry Innovation Space in McMurtry College, slated to open this spring. The room will have a variety of art supplies, a 3-D printer, woodworking materials and other items available for student use. Phillips says the McMurtry space is one where students of all majors and interests can come together to work on projects.
“The group of students that founded it is from a variety of backgrounds – engineering, architecture, visual arts,” he said. “I’m hoping the space will be a place where students can see that they can collaborate, and that by combining their skills sets can create greater things.”
He says he’s grateful for the scholarship and says he plans to continue working to showcase how the arts are important both on campus and in life. An OEDK lab assistant, Phillips plans to work in the energy sector when he graduates.
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