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Posts Tagged ‘junk sculpture’

junk-hat

A hat created by Justin, one of my STEAM it Up students. It is made of upcycled and repurposed materials.

At the beginning of the school year in my STEAM it Up class I had the students vote on which of many possible projects they wanted to work on. The one unit they all agreed on was to make a series of sculptures or cosplay items out of repurposed, upcycled junk. I’ve been collecting materials for years, ever since I created my first “junk” sculpture at the age of 18. I’ve taught this unit three times before in Intersession classes and afterschool clubs when I was at Walden School of Liberal Arts. The results were mixed – the high school students did fairly well, but not so much the middle school students. It seems at that age students are much better at tearing things apart than at systematically planning how to put them back together.

junk-cat

Small junk sculpture of a cat, made by Emily.

My main reason for teaching the class was to actually use up the junk I’ve been collecting and clean out my workshop. Yet it seems I wind up with more stuff before than after – maybe because of the aforementioned “tearing apart” proclivity of middle school students; what was nicely compacted as old VCRs and DVD players is now a series of scattered pieces.

bracelet-and-diagram

A bracelet and a diagram, created for my STEAM it Up class.

So I was a bit reluctant to do this again and bring in boxes of materials that inevitably make a terrible mess in my classroom. But I also knew it could be fun and educational if done right, so I took the chance. I structured this differently than before: each student would need to produce three items. The first would be a small sculpture as a beginning exercise, something that can be easily held in one hand. The second would be a cosplay item or some type of costume piece or wearable sculpture or prop. The third would be a group project where all eight students would plan out a large-scale sculpture together. The second and third projects needed to be sketched out and planned in advance.

little-man

A little man, made from old keys and other recycled objects. Glued together with hot glue and E-6000 adhesive.

They came up with a variety of interesting sculptures for their first and second projects, as seen here. I am also including some of their sketches, although in too many cases they drew the sketches after they made the sculptures. Some of the sculptures involved LED lights, which took some planning and thinking through. The point is to teach them some engineering and materials science skills, and engineers plan everything out in advance. Some students resist this, as they see these sculptures as art forms, not engineering designs, and pre-planning seems to them to impede the creative process. Of course, without planning and thinking through how to attach the disparate materials together, their sculptures tend to fall apart. Glue alone can’t hold a load-bearing member like a leg or arm.

small-soldier

A tiny soldier, made by Noah for my STEAM it Up class.

Which is why we are doing a group project. We decided to build a futuristic Mars colony city (to go with our school’s overall Mars Exploration project – more on this coming in my other blog at http://spacedoutclassroom.com).

space-ship

A space ship sculpture, made from recycled motherboards and other electronic junk.

Two years ago, we had someone contribute a lot of materials to Walden School that were from a doctor’s office or scientist’s lab. I still have no clue what most of the stuff was even for – some of it is probably valuable as antiques. One item was a still for making distilled water, but bought in the early 1970s because of its horrible avocado green color scheme. I managed to get a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University to take it off my hands. But the rest of the stuff was of little use. One item was a plastic autoclave, with multiple levels for sterilizing surgical equipment. There were also glass containers for storing or cleaning microscope slides (I think – based on similar plastic items I’ve seen in the Flinn Scientific catalog).

flying-saucer

A flying saucer that lights up, made by Sam for my STEAM it Up class.

The autoclave looks like a domed city, something out of Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel series of books about the android R. Daneel Olivaw and Detective Elijah Bailey. We were looking at the autoclave and other materials and “noodling around,” which is an important scientific and engineering creative process: putting things together that don’t normally go together and seeing what would look good and work toward a harmonious whole. We came up with the glass containers as pillars for the autoclave layers. One of the students suggested offsetting the layers. I sketched these ideas out on my whiteboard, and we worked through how to attach everything together using metal piping from old 1980s brass and glass furniture with bolts and L-brackets, and wire to tie the pillars together to make the whole thing structurally sound.

bracelet-with-led

A steampunk bracelet with LED light, made by Sam.

Teams of students took different layers. The bottom layer (Level 1) will be the industrial and manufacturing center, so one team is making industrial-style equipment and buildings that look like factories and power plants. One team is doing Level 2, which is the main residential sector. One team is doing Level 3, which is the administrative, shopping, hospital, and school level. They built a school from an old calculator and wanted the holes to become solar panels. I remembered having a folder with a shiny metallic-blue cover, so we cannibalized it to become the solar cells. Level 4 is the park, university, and upper class residential sector, and the dome will have spaceports, defense, and communications centers. Already the pieces are shaping up. This is exactly the engineering and materials science I had hoped for when we started this unit.

magic-wand

Magic wand, made by Sarah for my STEAM it Up class.

We are now beginning the construction of the main city levels, but Winter Break has halted the process. It will be our last project for the STEAM it Up class. It will sit upon two wooden plaques, again donated from the doctor’s office, and we’ll create smaller domes for hydroponics and farms, with small Mars rovers (already made by one student who is great at miniaturized sculptures).

stamp-and-ring

Small sculptures created by my STEAM it Up students: a stamp and a ring.

We’ll make Mars landscaping from paper maché and HO scale model train decorations. I also hope to put wires up through the support shafts and add LED lights to the city. The final city will be quite heavy and hard to move around, so it will stay in my classroom and make a great decoration for my newly completed lab. We’re photographing the construction process, I’ll interview the students, and we’ll add all of this to our ongoing Mars project documentary video. I’ll write another blog post in January when we can show the finished sculpture. I would also like to create a virtual 3D model of the finished city so we can animate and label the parts.

mars-colony-sketch

First drawing of our Mars colony, using parts from an autoclave as the levels of our city and glass microscope slide cleaners as pillars.

We still need to pick a name for it. Looking up names for Mars in various cultures, and adding translations for the word “city,” I come up with some possibilities: Aresdelphia, Al-Qahira Madina, Harmakhis Delphi, Hradelphia or Hrad K’aghak’, Huo Hsing Shr, Ma’adim Delphi, Kaseishi, Mangalakha, Martedelphia or Marte Cuidad, Mawrth Dinas, Nirgal Alu, Shalbatana Alu, Simudelphia, Labouville, and Tiuburg. We’ll have to vote on it.

mars-colony-first-attempt

Even without glue or bolts, the layers stack up fairly well in this first attempt to build the Mars colony city. We decided to use two of the boards instead of one so we could add more landscaping and farming domes using HO-scale model railroad decor.

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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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