The Laycock Center a Student Laboratory for Real-World, Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Tucked away behind a stairwell in a corner the Harris Fine Arts Center, a group of enterprising students and faculty are making things happen. Big things. A composition student is presenting the musical score he wrote to film students creating a documentary. Animators are working meticulously with illustrators to bring characters to life in a digital storybook. An advertising student is teleconferencing with a high-profile social innovation company to discuss the progress of a new project.

This hive of innovative, interdisciplinary endeavors is known as the Laycock Center for Creative Collaboration in the Arts. Under the guidance of director Jeff Sheets, the Laycock Center brings together students from different disciplines within the College of Fine Arts and Communications and across campus and provides them with opportunities to collaborate on real-world projects.

These ventures are as varied as the students who plan and carry them out. The Center is constantly cooking up projects that range from solving world problems to fostering new interactions between the arts. This interdisciplinary laboratory thus transcends what any of BYU’s programs could accomplish individually.

Reimagining a generous gift

The Center originates from an endowment provided by an anonymous donor in 2003 to honor George Elijah and Fern Redd Laycock and their children Harold, Ralph, Merne (Livingstone) and Hugh. Initially, it served primarily as a funding source for faculty to carry out mentored projects with their students or to allow students to learn from guest artists invited for short residencies.

By 2011, however, the College of Fine Arts and Communications (CFAC) had begun to envision the potential for a more in-depth collaborative experience. With this vision, the college started developing the Laycock Center into something beyond a mere funding source. They carved out a new model for the Center by creating an actual space where the Center would be located, appointing a full-time director and charging the Center to focus on student-led experiences. Jeff Sheets, formerly an advertising professor in the Department of Communications, was hired as the Center’s first director to lead the landmark change.

“The Center would cultivate leadership in students by engaging them more deeply,” Sheets said. “We want them to be co-authors, co-creators and leaders of projects as opposed to mere participants.”

Creating big things

Since its overhaul, the Laycock Center has done more than just generate professional-quality products. By supplying the college resources and faculty mentoring necessary to aid students in achieving their visions, it has empowered ambitious and creative student volunteers to bring their big ideas from conception to fruition.

A prime example of the quality and scope of these new-style Laycock Center projects is the Readers to the Rescue project that the Center is executing for the Library of Congress. The project aims to create an interactive storybook website to help children learn to enjoy reading. Set to launch in mid-October, it brought together students pursuing illustration, animation, film, advertising, music and even computer science. BYU has some of the top programs in each of these disciplines, and by bringing them together, the Laycock Center facilitates the production of outstanding creative work.

“It’s exciting. It’s really fun,” Sheets said. “The feedback that we’ve gotten is that this is as professional a project as they’ve ever received and, in some ways, the best they’ve ever received.”

Funding student aspirations

The Laycock Center provides not only a physical place for creative collaboration to occur but also, through the Laycock Endowment, the funding necessary for many projects. Three tiers of funding offer students and faculty flexibility in their creative pursuits. The first tier assists creative projects at the early stages of development in order to establish the viability of the project concept. Director Jeff Sheets describes this as funding for “even a germ of an idea” in order to see if it has potential to be successful.

The second tier is for projects that Sheets calls the “more traditional Laycock Projects.” It provides more funding for projects that include students in the process but are not run by the students. In this type of project, students are often involved but their participation and mentorship is limited in duration.

The third tier of funding is appropriated to projects that feature long-term student engagement and that involve multiple faculty or mentors who put the students at the center of the experience. Sheets describes this level of project funding as a process whose outcome is more than just the completed product. This tier aims to transform the students themselves through the leadership qualities and growth they obtain in the process of collaboration.

Setting BYU students apart from their peers

The Laycock Center’s undertakings place it in elite company among national universities – and not just for its professional-quality products. It affords students an opportunity that most undergraduates never get a chance to participate in: real-world experience in multidisciplinary collaboration.

“The great thing about the Laycock Center is that we thrive off of projects that go beyond the BYU campus,” said Vanessa “V” Burnett, a senior from Washington majoring in advertising. Burnett, who is graduating in April 2014, is one of the students that have been contributing to the Laycock Center since its strategic shift in 2011.

“The Center facilitates your thinking beyond your own little creative mind, and it gives you opportunities that you wouldn’t usually see at an undergraduate level,” she continued.

Sheets confirmed the uniqueness of the Laycock Center among undergraduate experiences.

“For undergraduate students, this type of creative and collaborate space is unparalleled. Graduate school allows for this type of interdisciplinary learning more readily,” said Sheets, who compared the vision of the Laycock Center with Stanford’s and MIT’s Media Lab.

Unlike these prestigious graduate programs, however, BYU both opens such mentoring experiences to undergraduates and welcomes a range of potential collaborative outcomes: from business to physical devices and from artworks to information campaigns.

Responding to the challenges of a new millennium

The College of Fine Arts and Communications pursued this educational model not just to set itself apart from other undergraduate programs but, more importantly, to respond to the changing landscape of the new millennium.

“We have to innovate now,” Sheets explained. “We have to create new creative learning environments, and this is one way we think we can do it.”

Illustration student Melissa Manwill, who illustrated storybook characters for the Readers to the Rescue project, has also found great value in getting involved with the Laycock Center. She has found that working with projects at the Laycock Center gives students a taste of what life beyond college will be like.

“You’re not going to just be working with people from your major,” Manwill said.  “It’s going to be all these other students helping, contributing to this bigger thing that is much bigger than you could ever make on your own.”

Engaging with opportunities at the Center

In addition to providing students with real-world experiences, the Laycock Center also helps solve a common problem that many undergraduates have.

Many students come to college with multiple interests and aptitudes, only to have to decide on one or two that they will focus on. By providing a forum for interdisciplinary collaboration, the Laycock Center allows students to leverage their interdisciplinary aptitudes while at BYU.

Students, faculty or staff of the College of Fine Arts and Communications are eligible to submit proposals for the funding of creative, collaborative projects. Students outside the college are also welcome to participate in the Laycock Center by teaming up with CFAC students to propose new projects or assist in current projects.

Regardless of what they may think about their creative aptitude, every BYU student has the potential to contribute something to the Laycock Center. In turn, getting involved in the Laycock Center provides students the opportunity to bring to life even the wildest ideas, discover new possibilities, prepare for their careers – and help others to have the same chance.

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