Who Are Pittsburgh’s Best Professors?
Whether they’re humanizing robots or illuminating human history, some of the finest minds working in higher education today can be found in Pittsburgh.
BY NIKI KAPSAMBELIS
Scene Design, Carnegie Mellon University
“When she’s not designing sets for a play or introducing third-graders to the world of theater, Anne Mundell is teaching students at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama how to be comfortable with the ambiguity that is inherent to the life of the artist.
“I’m always interested in the idea of the other, the outsider,” she says. “Carnegie Mellon is a place that is full of outliers.”
She fell into academia completely by chance, replacing a friend who was taking leave from Carnegie Mellon to work on a film. Twenty-six years later, she considers her students to be her greatest teachers.
When she first started instructing, she admits she felt awkward because she thought she had to be present with all the answers. Over time, she says she learned that her job was more about asking the right questions and challenging students to leave their comfort zones. Mundell wanted to walk the walk, so she tried to think of a discipline on campus that seemed to be the diametric opposite of theater. She chose robotics and proposed a collaboration about 10 years ago.
After some initial back and forth, the two departments collaborated to create robots, including “roboceptionists” with human characteristics. One, Athina, lives at the Carnegie Science Center; another, Tank, is stationed at the entrance to Newell-Simon Hall on campus and offers visitors directions.
Together with dramatic-writing students, Mundell came up with a backstory for Tank — he’s a failed spy satellite whose mission went awry when he was pointed in the wrong direction. An earlier version, Valerie, was programmed to talk about work, her mother, her love life and her psychiatrist. Students helped to create the animation and facial expressions.
“When you go into something like that, nobody has a real idea of what the capability of the other side is, and everybody’s a little reluctant,” says Mundell. “Theater is highly artistic and technical, so that kind of cooperation is central to me and central to the way I teach.”
Her list of former students includes Emmy winners and people who work on Broadway plays, amusement parks, museums and films, as well as installation artists, doctors and lawyers.
“We don’t know what’s coming next in terms of entertainment and storytelling, so we try to put our students into what I call creative cauldrons,” says Mundell. “We give them a task, throw a bunch of people and gear in a cauldron and see what comes out.””
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