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 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
As an artist-educator, I especially enjoy working with curriculum content where art and science naturally overlap. The study of light, part of the 5th grade standards in science, is a perfect intersection of these two fields. In my 5th grade residencies at Michael R White and Hannah Gibbons this spring, I introduced students to the concept of light-based art through the work of artists such as Rashad Alakbarov and collaborators Tim Noble and Sue Webster. After this we explored a range of different methods of creating original works using light and shadow. Hannah Gibbons students used long exposures on a digital camera to write with trails of light, while students at Michael R. White created luminaria with laser cut designs that cast delicate patterns when lit from within. As their artist-educator, it was a treat to watch students’ surprise at how the process of scanning and laser cutting their designs transformed them, and how the patterns were transformed once again as students experimented and played with shining light on and through them.
Students at both schools also experimented with creating shadow patterns using black tape on clear acetate, and those at Hannah Gibbons built a shadow cityscape using found objects and repurposed cardboard placed behind a backlit sheet. It was interesting to watch them negotiate the placement of different objects in their shadow cityscape as they realized that each object’s distance from the sheet affected both its size and clarity. They had to work together and rearrange the objects through several revisions until they achieved a visually pleasing composition that highlighted a range of objects. The students extended these collaboration skills to their creation of a dramatic sculpture of branches that creates striking shadows when lit. I was so impressed by their ability to organize themselves into different roles with minimal adult intervention as they built this sculpture; rather than orchestrating the construction, I was able to serve as another member of the team, holding branches together while students bound them with wire or vice versa. Seeing that I had created a context in which students were given the motivation and tools to work unassisted as a group was one of my most satisfying moments as an educator. Not only were students thrilled to discover how humble materials can be transformed by the careful manipulation of light and shadow, they were proud of their creation because it was truly theirs as a group.
Light writing using long camera exposures
Experimenting with light direction on luminaria
Our finished shadow cityscape
Building our branch lamp
The finished branch lamp being tested with light in the computer lab (the darkest room in the school).
Experimenting with LEDs with a student at the Southeast Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.
Winter can be a cold, harsh season here in Cleveland. To get everyone out of the house and into creativity, my colleagues and I have been teaching Conductive Creativity workshops at the Cuyahoga County Libraries over the past several months. These workshops focus on teaching students how to make an LED circuit and how to create a piece of art in the form of a light box. We provide them with all of the materials, give them a brief introduction to circuits, and let them explore. As a fine artist in the education field, it is incredibly fascinating to observe my students as they explore and create with artistic and scientific media that I am just beginning to understand. The freethinking attitudes present in these workshops contribute to communication, as well as innovation amongst peers, students, and teachers alike.
One student’s light box.
There is such inspiration to be found in the informal classroom. In our most recent workshop, I gave students a variety of multicolored plastic film, LEDs, and foil, with which to decorate their light boxes. Students gravitated towards the various supplies, creating light boxes that I would never have visualized. They were all unique, despite having the same initial box and circuit structure. For example, two sisters of similar ages participated in the Middleburg Heights Library workshop. One sister gravitated towards the visuals, creating elaborately decorated light boxes with only a few circuits. The other went on to create an elongated series circuit, choosing to focus entirely on the electronics and the LEDs. It was exciting to see two dissimilar and opposite projects come from two very alike individuals.
I try to encourage advanced students to assist their peers during the making process. At one point, I began noticing that when one student struggles with his or her circuit, another student will instinctively offer assistance. This exchange of knowledge and seamless collaboration and experimentation is something that has naturally occurred in the Conductive Creativity workshops, and it is something I wish to perpetuate in all of the programs I facilitate at Progressive Arts Alliance.
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:
Students building kinetic sculptures at Mound STEM School.
During the fall 2014 semester, I presented the eighth grade students at Mound STEM School with the design challenge of creating a Rube Goldberg inspired kinetic sculpture with the end goal of making a mark on a paper with paint or any medium they selected. They were required to have a minimum of three distinct movements within their sculpture as they explored how friction, gravity, balance, pushing force, pulling force, and weight could harmonize to create this art with a purpose.
The moments that were most memorable for me were not the final runs or end results. This residency was so much about learning new skills that are applicable to a wide variety of occupations and making large and small iterations to make each moving component function just so. The beginning of the program was dedicated to teaching the students a variety of ways to connect parts. They learned how to properly use tools to create connections using tethering, screws, bolts, hot glue, and more.
There is a certain confidence that comes with the ability to transform a pile of wood into a structure that moves and a specific sense of accomplishment when something works for the first time after many trials and errors. One group needed to build something resembling a teeter totter that would push one component up when another went down. Each of the group members started with a different collection of material and ideas. They sketched out what they wanted to build and set off trying to master the challenge. After around fifteen minutes, two of the students combined ideas, went back for different materials and created what ended up being their solution. Those group members took it upon themselves to assist other teams who also desired an up and down motion, but each team took a slightly different approach so no two teeter totter mechanisms were the same. These are the moments that were most important in this residency. They were moments of success after a difficult challenge was created.
See some of the students testing their sculptures here: