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A Project in Engineering Design and Materials Science

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

The STEAMpunk Club at Walden School of Liberal Arts

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.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It's a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

This is Herbie the Head, my first junk sculpture. It’s a bit the worse for time. The frame is made of welded plastic girders. The neck and support are the rocket nozzle and heat shield of an Apollo space capsule.

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.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

Philo the Robot, named for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. He needs some repairs.

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!

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

Looking through junk, coming up with ideas.

(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!)

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

Demolishing used electronics, including old VCRs, DVD players, phones, remote controls, and calculators.

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.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

Assembling the junk using engineering and material science knowledge.

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.

Soldering pieces together

Soldering pieces together

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.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

Small sculptures created by students at Walden School.

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.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

A robot created by a student from found and re-tasked objects.

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.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

Some of the final sculptures by the Junk Art class at Walden School.

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.

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

Steampunk goggles I made for the STEAMpunk Club

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.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

My Halloween steampunk costume, plus a monster.

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.

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