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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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When teachers learn … design notes from iterating a project


As I prepare to teach a pinball-inspired kinetic sculpture program for the third time, I think back and realize just how far this project has come and how much I have learned by teaching it. The first iteration of the project consisted of a cardboard base, hot glue and tape for the connections, and a variety of activities where students learned about forces, motion, geometry, and measurement. The goal was for the boards to be able to stand at several different inclines so that the students could experiment with gravity and friction. To accomplish this, PVC pipe legs we provided were interchangeable and they attached to the base with nuts and bolts that penetrated both the PVC and a bracket made of cardboard. The legs fit into a base that was supposed to hold them square. What I learned during the first iteration of this project was that the amount of force applied to the sculpture by the students was greater than the structure I designed could handle. Also, the amount of content I was covering was more than a ten-week residency would allow. Our work in the schools is referred to as residencies. Each residency is one curricular unit that takes place once a week for ten weeks. Despite some setbacks, the students were extremely eager to test variables, they understood forces and motion and had an introduction to math concepts that were several years beyond their grade level. They rose to the challenge and took great pride in their projects.

Fast forward two years. The pinball project was reintroduced to new students after a complete makeover. The cardboard was replaced by pegboard and plywood, the PVC was replaced by a variety of slanted plywood bases, and the tape was replaced by machine screws, nuts, and corner brackets. The focus of the project was on construction, forces, motion, and measurement to ensure that all of the students would really grasp the concepts. There was still experimentation along the way. Several balls were used to experiment and determine the appropriate size and weight for the sculptures the students created.  Additional pieces of wood were also used to prevent the ball from flying off of the board. The project was successful and the students’ work was showcased at the Superelectric Pinball Parlor at 78th Street Studios as part of the monthly art walk.

This year, the goal is to take the project to the next level. There were four key design challenges that were identified last year that I plan to address. The first challenge I identified was that the bases ended up not all being the correct size for the board. In my drawing plans of this year’s project iteration, I’ve included considerations for the slant needed to determine the length of the bases. The second design challenge is finding an appropriate dowel for the peg board.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Previously, the smallest dowel we could find was too thick to fit into the pegboard. This year we will attach paint stirrers to 4″ nails or golf tees (both of which fit into the pegboard) so that the students will be able to create a variety of interchangeable paths for the ball to travel on through their sculpture. In the past, students had one fixed path in their sculptures. The third design challenge to be addressed is the edges of the board. In the plan I have designed, the edges have been altered and a 1/8″ plexi-sheet has been added to

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

the top that can be lifted off. This will prevent the ball from leaving the board once it is activated by the plunger. The fourth design challenge is mastering the plunger apparatus. This year we ordered 7″ long springs from a pinball machine part supplier. It has been difficult to find springs that are longer than a few inches and are easy enough for students to fully compress. Also, with a thicker edge (1/2″ plywood) and an extra block of wood in the center to guide the rod, we should have a more consistent pushing force. Instead of using pre-threaded rod from a store, we are using smooth rods. We are threading the top and bottom of each smooth rod using a die in the think[box] lab at Case Western Reserve University. Our threading should further enhance the spring driven force and reduce friction. The threading is needed to attach the plunger’s handle and prevent the spring from flying off.

I’m looking forward to sharing this project with a new group of students and yielding even greater results. Stay tuned for more updates on the implementation of this project.

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Making it move. Making it work.

Mound 8th grade kinetic sculptures

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:

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