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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.