A Project in Engineering Design and Materials Science
I am a pack rat. I grew up with my grandparents living next door in my hometown of Deseret, Utah. Both my parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression and never wanted to throw anything away. Anything that could be salvaged and re-tasked or reused was kept in case it might come in handy later.
I have the same compulsion, only in my case I collect objects that are clearly past being useful for their original purpose. In other words, I collect junk. But I’ve done some things with it, including making sculptures from the junk. This started during the summer after I graduated from high school. I went on a long wilderness trek wearing old boots. The trek included a 25-mile hike during a single day and night, and by the time I finally got to camp I had 16 blisters on my feet and toes. By the time I got home again, I had to take a few days off from walking or wearing shoes to let all of these blisters heal.
I decided to spend the time making something fun out of my old model kits that had all fallen apart but which I hadn’t thrown away. These included everything from a funky bathtub car to a five-foot model of a Saturn V rocket. I took the girders that held the plastic parts and used a candle to melt them together to form the frame of a head, then glued in parts and other interesting objects. The end result was rather fun, and I called the junk head “Herbie” after the Love Bug in the old Disney movies. I decided (over my mom’s protests) to enter the sculpture in the county fair. It won a sweepstakes prize!
(I met one of the judges several years later who admitted to me that they didn’t have any idea what category this sculpture was supposed to be in, so they figured it had to be the best in whatever category it was. Hence the sweepstakes ribbon. So much for my artistic ego!)
With that bit of undeserved encouragement, I continued to build other sculptures, including a robot (Philo), a three-legged dog, even a working lamp which tripped the circuit breaker the first time I turned it on. I’ve kept the robot in repair, mostly, but the others have fallen apart due to the deterioration of the glue from UV light. Yet I’ve kept all the parts.
It occurred to me last fall, as I was starting up the STEM-Arts Alliance project at Walden School, that it might be fun to teach a junk sculpture class for our Intersession program. We take two weeks between third and fourth terms to teach specialty classes. So I got approval and wrote up a description and had about ten students sign up. I bought some tools and various glues, nuts, bolts, screws, etc. and carried all my boxes of junk into school. It was quite the collection by now.
Although this is essentially an art project, I knew that it also tested one’s ability to attach and adapt different objects made from widely different materials. In other words, this was really a material science and engineering project. The students looked through the junk, came up with ideas, and were required to plan and sketch out their designs, including how they planned to attach the parts together. They had to use secure fasteners such as nuts and bolts for any load bearing members.
The end results were well done, and those that did the most planning were the most successful. We used drills, saws, Dremmel tools, soldering irons, hot glue guns, epoxy, and other materials to cut and adapt parts, then fasten them together.
Even after having ten students built projects, I still had junk left. In fact, it seemed I had more than when I started. I had kept all my old broken VCRs and DVDs, telephones and calculators, and other electronic junk, which the students tore apart. There is some fascinating stuff in there. So I decided to try the class again as a fall after school club. I named it the STEAMpunk Club, which I thought was a nice play on words.
Our objective was to build steampunk goggles and other costume items for Halloween. I went to dollar stores and hardware stores looking for possibilities for objects that could be re-tasked. Princess tiaras and canning jar rings became telephoto lenses, and old softballs became leather eyepieces. We added gear decorations and plastic parts that had been spray painted silver and gold. I also found a black derby hat for cheap in a discount store and tied my elaborate goggles to it with safety pins. I also made a second, less ornate set of goggles. I wore these with my old black coat and completed a pretty good steampunk costume. The next time ComicCon comes to town, I’ll be ready. The students came up with interesting goggles and props of their own, and even a few more junk sculptures.
I have planned out a larger sculpture for my classroom, another robot that will stand about three feet tall and have a framework or core of glued, spray-painted PVC pipe for strength and structure. I have collected all the parts, and hope to complete him sometime in the spring when my workshop warms up again.
Maybe by next summer I will have exorcised this current drive to make junk sculptures. I seem to vibrate between several modes or interests, including science, history, and art. Lately, I’ve been in an art mode, which is why I decided to initiate the STEM-Arts Alliance in the first place; it would give me a chance to do all the things I love. It’s been fun so far, and I think my students have responded well and enjoyed the crossover opportunities. I know these projects are a bit idiosyncratic and won’t generalize to most teacher’s classrooms, but then again, maybe someone out there can use this idea to their own advantage. I’d love to hear what you come up with.