Monday, June 6, 2016

Energy! Wood Sculptures on Physics Concepts

Fourth graders here at EES do a unit of study in their classrooms on potential and kinetic energy. What better classroom-to-art room connection than to bring in the fabulous Alexander Calder to the conversation, as a jumping-off point?

Students looked at his mobiles and stabiles, and considered how his work used energy. In their own work they were charged with the job of "evidencing your understanding of potential and/or kinetic energy through an abstract wooden sculpture."

It's funny how with some kids, that problem statement is broad enough to be actually upsetting, because there was no "right" answer. Hands went up, right and left, all asking basically the same thing: "But what should it look like?!"

"Well," I kept saying, "I don't know exactly how yours will look. It depends on how you choose to make it."

For other students, this was exactly the kind of problem they love.  The tools. The tinkering. The open-ended problem-solving over a dozen iterations of their design to create stored energy or actual motion.

"But what if I am afraid to use the tools?"

It's true, we used real tools. Handsaw, hot glue guns, sandpaper, wire snips, dowel cutters. And a drill. I didn't tell students that they had to use all of the tools, (but most chose to) but they did have to find a way to cut and assemble their design. With lots of support, safety checks, and guidance, students quickly grew to feel comfortable with these tools.

One of the most exciting parts to me is the number of young artists who, due to their new interest, decided to take an after-school woodworking class with Sawmill Studios.

Did all of the artworks function as the artist planned?  Of course not, that isn't how design work usually goes, especially not on the first few tries.  But eventually, artworks all around the room were rolling, springing, and spinning into motion.

The parts of this project which were especially marvelous were that:
 1) each artwork was significantly different than any other,
 2) students took it so seriously and were so invested that there were virtually no management issues,
 3) it was wonderful to see students flexibly try so many variations of an idea instead of mentally committing to a design and being unwilling to change it, and
 4) students gained comfort and confidence in a new and challenging medium.

Students loved it, and asked to work with wood again, so for next year the main change I would make is that I am buying a small vise!

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