Tag Archives: design

Illuminated Artist Books: Robots

After laying down seemingly miles of copper tape–practicing complicated bends and turns–the fourth graders at Hannah Gibbons were ready to see if their skills could be applied to complete circuits and illuminate tiny LED lights. They masterfully wired a simple circuit, and celebrated 100% success as a class on their first try, each of them rewarded with the soft glow of a single LED light. Eager to master multiple lights, they dove into their parallel circuits with equal success and much enthusiasm.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Next up, we’d really investigate the line as well as our understanding of circuits. [Remember our Essential Questions regarding the line in this semester’s artist book residencies incorporating circuits and LED lights] Students each created a unique drawing of a robot that they invented through a creative writing exercise. With their completed drawings, students identified several areas where lights could enhance their robot illustrations; think eyes, antennas, hearts, and laser hands. The robot drawings were completed on the outside surface of a folded lift-the-flap structure to allow for the creation of parallel circuits beneath the illustrations.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Students plotted out the placement of their lights, and got to work designing and creating their custom parallel circuits. This was a huge challenge, and as a result offered the greatest reward. After weeks of practice, students adapted and translated their understanding of circuits into a line drawing of positive and negative parallel but never touching tracks looping back to the power source to illuminate the lights beneath their illustrations. There was an excitement of challenge, mixed with a little head-scratching, many super tight turns with copper tape, and a few frustrated re-starts.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

And then, it was absolute magic. Every student mastered a unique parallel circuit for their book spread, and then folded down their robot drawing to lay flat over the lights. “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s sounded out in a cacophony as students celebrated in both amazement and disbelief of how their robots lit up exactly where they had hoped; their smiles as bright as their lights!

See the students in action in their classroom by watching the YouTube video below:

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Screen Printing and Quilting: Creating Magic in the Classroom

mrw_printingOne of the most rewarding aspects of teaching I have found is witnessing the literal “light bulb” moment in the arts-integrated classroom. The third graders at Michael R. White STEM I worked with during the fall 2015 semester were certainly enthusiastic learners, but the concepts of screen printing and printmaking were totally foreign to them. The assignment was to design and draw a life-cycle, which they would then screen print onto a square of canvas. These squares would come together to create a quilt, depicting life-cycles found in our natural world. They were excited about the project, but it was the physical act of screen printing that made students’ eyes truly light up around me. It was like magic for them, seeing their drawings burned onto screens, and then printed on canvas. The students loved moving the ink across the screen with the squeegee, watching it seep into the mesh and onto the fabric. A student who was particularly restless, a self-proclaimed “trouble maker,” became entranced with the printing process. By the end of our first screening session, she was reminding students to “flood their screen,” and demonstrating the proper way to hold a squeegee.


Another “Aha!” moment occurred when we began the second half of our project: sewing. Students were finding personal connections within this project from the beginning; when we looked at pictures of historic quilts, students were exclaiming “my grandmother makes those!” or “we have one at home!” Many of these students had helped their relatives with quilting and sewing in the past, and were very intent on creating patterns with a plastic needle and yarn. As a class, they sewed each other’s squares, working together towards their goal.

The history of quilts comes from bringing together different elements to create a single collaborative blanket, something warm and familiar, something steeped in history and personality. The third graders at Michael R. White took this opportunity to create something educational that also represented each of them as individuals, and as a class. The quilt will be installed in the school during the second semester, and will remain there long after these students have graduated; a little piece of history.

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The Force and Motion of Life

As an Artist Educator, my goal is to deepen the learning experience for students and educators through engaging and innovative project-based learning residencies. In these residencies the scholars participate in hands-on learning experiences that provide opportunities to learn and practice transferable skills. They develop and nurture critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills. These skills not only enhance comprehension of the content from their academic classes, but they also apply to their lives outside the classroom.

Design plans for a chain reaction sculpture.

This fall, PAA organized a kinetic sculpture residency hosted at think[box], Case Western Reserve University’s innovation center.  The goal of this collaboration was to integrate the middle school science curriculum content standard into an experiential learning workshop, including content focused on force and motion. Five schools participated, serving approximately 150 students over a one week intensive residency.  Each scholar participated for two full school days in designing and building chain reaction kinetic sculptures at think[box].  Experiential learning opportunities like this provide avenues for students to explore force and motion in a hands-on way; enhancing their ability to incorporate theory into real life examples. Students worked in teams to collaboratively plan out their design based on the materials provided, thinking critically about the relationship between the material and the science.  They continually learned from their mistakes and tested out new methods and materials to come up with creative solutions.

Construction phase

Construction phase at the think[box].

These innovative residencies also provided invaluable teachable moments. I observed instances where the students referenced their own perceived abilities related to force and motion. Many students struggled with their self confidence in their ability to build a working chain reaction sculpture. In particular, one student struggled to recognize her own potential.  At the beginning, she expressed to me that she identified as being “stupid.”  I explained to her that what we are capable of is often determined by our mindset.  With coaching and encouragement she built up the self-esteem to participate in the project. Metaphorically, she is a ball at the top of a ramp filled with potential energy and the support we provide as instructors is the gravitational force that allows the ball to roll down the ramp and change into kinetic energy.  The hands-on learning of force, motion, and chain reaction became a relevant metaphor for her own lack of self-confidence transforming into kinetic energy.

Completed kinetic sculpture

Completed kinetic sculpture

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A Summer of Scratch

Over the past few months Progressive Arts Alliance has teamed up with the Cuyahoga County Public Library system to offer a five-day Scratch camp to children ages 11-18. Together with Allison Bogard, I’ve been co-facilitating these camps. I’d like to share a few projects the students have created that are really inspiring.


Several students made role playing games. The project shown above is one that stood out, as the student created the story, characters, animations — everything — from scratch (no pun intended)! Click on the above image to play the game.

Other students were inspired from games that already exist, and tweaked or combined elements to make something original. This version of Space Invaders (click on the image below) is well thought out, and adds an interesting spin to the classic game.



Many students also like creating puzzle games. The below example of a maze game has a very different vibe from many of the fast-paced, sci-fi types of games to which students are often drawn. It is relaxing, eerie, and challenging all at once!


Over the summer I’ve been happy to see students with and without prior knowledge of coding grasping abstract concepts and applying them almost immediately to the projects they were working on. I was inspired to see and hear students communicating and working together to solve problems or complicated challenges in their code after they were introduced to the idea of a critique.

As a result of these camps, I have found that in most cases it isn’t my job to take students step by step through something, but to be a guide through their creative process and help them teach themselves.

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Keywords: Agency and Diligence

The PAA artist-educator team arrives at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA.

The PAA artist-educator team arrives at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA.

There are hundreds of things I could write about in regards to the trip our team from Progressive Arts Alliance took to Cambridge, MA this past month. Things like how inspiring the Boston area was, what it felt like to be at MIT and Harvard (the big dogs), or given such little time, how much was accomplished. However, I would like to focus on the effect of one conversation in particular as I think it clearly elicits the quality of information gained on this trip.

On Thursday our PAA team met with Edward Clapp, a member of the Agency by Design team that is part of Harvard’s Project Zero.  During our conversation, we had a chance to cover a few topics, but two things really stuck with me. The idea of having and creating agency among students, and being diligent in that creation of agency. As an artist-educator for Progressive Arts Alliance, I take on the the challenge of developing new residencies to lead in Cleveland schools. Though this might sound slightly ridiculous, the biggest challenge I face in developing these projects (and I think many of the other artist-educators face a similar one) is the question “Could this really happen?”

After talking to Edward at length about what PAA is doing, what we have done, and about the results and personal inferences gained from my projects I came to a firm conclusion:

Testing the boundaries of what is realistic, what isn’t, and what might seem insane is what makes the PAA experience amazing. Allowing myself to be vigilant, to not make the project easier, to expect a high quality result in each of these residencies has not only noticeably increased confidence in many of my students, but has also helped them to find new voices and agency in those voices. Striving towards something that may seem impossible today will be among the first steps to making it a reality in the future.


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Web Design Workshop

This is the last night of our web design workshop at the Fairview Park Branch of Cuyahoga County Public Library, and my students and I are equally sad to be saying goodbye, but so proud of what we have accomplished!

Here are some of the beautiful sites they designed:

It was so delightful to see the diversity of what every student produced. We had a particularly excellent group dynamic in this class, and were able to use each other as resources for feedback and critique as we worked to build our sites.

weird animals

Learn more about fascinating animals from around the world on “Weird Creatures,” a site created by one of our youth participants.

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Preparing for Disaster

Students in the eighth grade class at Michael R. White STEM School build one of their structures design to withstand forces exerted from weight and vibration.

Students in the eighth grade class at Michael R. White STEM School build one of their structures designed to withstand forces exerted from weight and vibration.

During the fall of 2014, I presented the 8th grade students at Michael R. White STEM with a design challenge in which they had to design and build structures that could withstand weight and vibration in an effort to mimic the forces which are exerted on buildings during earthquakes. Students experimented with the integrity and arrangement of multiple materials and the limitations of time and material quantity. Through building, testing, documenting, analyzing and restructuring, the students gained a deeper understanding of engineering and design. As the artist-educator teaching this program for the first time, I wondered if the students would ‘get stuck’ on a design that proved to be successful during one of the early sessions leaving each subsequent iteration with a collection of mostly identical structures. The goal of the residency was not to have them discover one specific solution, but to apply what they learned along the way to further iterate their solutions and challenge themselves to create something better. It was great to see students continue to explore, test, and iterate all the way through to the end of the residency. The difference between the experimentation at the beginning and at the end was their improved ability to articulate the decisions they made and explain why they made them based on the results of past tests. It was exciting to see how students had combined concepts and weren’t afraid of failure if they believed they could learn from it.

Here is a video of some of the design challenges the students participated in:


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Designing Gardens

During the fall semester, with the 1st grade class at the Michael R. White School, we took advantage of our proximity to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens to explore how landscape designers shape our experience of the natural world in conjunction with students’ learning about the basic needs of living things, including plants.

First, students used clay to create their own dishes for miniature gardens. While these were drying to be fired, we took a field trip to the Cultural Gardens, where students used pencil and paper to draw maps and record their observations about what features they noticed in the gardens. P1110880

Following this field trip, students applied their observations to designing their own gardens, creating maquettes, or miniature models, using real plants. We recalled how the designer of the Cultural Gardens had created paths for visitors to walk through and included lots of variety within the gardens to capture visitors’ interest. Variety is an important principle of effective design, and students were able to explore many different ways of using variety in this project through the varied textures, colors, and forms of the plants and sculptures they included in their own gardens.


Picking a variety of plants.


Transferring the plants to the model gardens.

To top everything off, students got to see a laser cutter in action as signposts were etched using each child’s handwriting, so that everyone who visited our mini gardens would know whose was whose!


The laser cutter in action.


A finished maquette garden.



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