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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Awe & Wonder & the Aurora-- a middle school digital making & recycled art project

A couple of months ago, fellow TOSA (teacher on special assignment), Misty Kluesner, and I partnered with middle school art teacher, Kimiyo Cordero, to brainstorm a multimedia art project that involved cross-curricular instructional elements (specifically math, computer science and science) and would challenge our middle schoolers to create something beyond the scripted art projects that they were used to, to design a piece more contemporary, and would push their creative thinking.

Kimiyo's goal of designing around the theme of "awe and wonder" led us to design a project in which students learned about the Aurora Borealis and then designed abstract art from recycled materials, inspired by the aurora and including digital elements programmed by Raspberry Pi computers.

Our learning goals?

    • Students would be introduced to the following Art, Science, Math & CS standards:
      • CSTA 1B-A-5-4 Grade 3-5: Create programs that include sequences, events, loops and conditionals. (Most of our middle school students were working with very little to no programming background, so we centered our work around elementary standards to bring them up to speed.)
      • CSTA 1B-AP-12 Grade 3-5: Modify, remix, or incorporate portions of an existing program into one’s own work, to develop something new or add more advanced features
      • CSTA 2-AP-16 Grade 6-8: Systematically test and refine programs using a range of test cases.
      • MS PS1.A: Gases and liquids are made of molecules or inert atoms that are moving about relative to each other.
      • CCSSM.7.G.A.2: Draw geometric shapes with given conditions. 
      • VA:Cr2.1.8: Demonstrate willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks to pursue ideas, forms, and meanings that emerge in the process of art-making or designing.
      • VA:Cr1.1.8: Document early stages of the creative process visually and/or verbally in traditional or new media.
      • VA:Cr2.1.7: Demonstrate persistence in developing skills with various materials, methods, and approaches in creating works of art or design.
      • VA:Cr1.2.7: Develop criteria to guide making a work of art or design to meet an identified goal.
      • VA:Cr1.1.7: Apply methods to overcome creative blocks.

First steps

    • Using the Google Expeditions VR kit, students learned about the Aurora and studied the colors and movement in the natural phenomena.
    • Kimiyo also taught the students about geometric and organic shapes, and how both show up in contemporary art.
    • Students needed to develop confidence in creating abstract art. Unfortunately, at this point in their school careers, our middle schoolers are so used to producing work that has been dictated for them step-by-step, that developing a unique piece of abstract art was incredibly challenging for them. Kimiyo and Misty did a lot of work around building creative confidence in students and encouraging them to not be afraid to just start creating and see what happens.
Smiling through struggles

Learning to code

    • I started the grade 7 and 8 students with a few introductory coding & physical computing lessons using the Python task cards I created based on the Raspberry Pi organization's free online lessons.
    • In the process, students also learned basic circuitry and started thinking about how to wire up LEDs and buttons into their physical works of art.
      • It was exciting to see some get really creative with their LEDs right away!
      • Others were annoyed at the initial coding lessons in their physical art class, but once they started lighting up LEDs and Sense HATs they became excited at the possibilities.


    So many cables!
    • Designing an abstract piece of art from scratch was a big struggle for most of the students. 

      • We (the teachers) ended up making examples of recycled art that represented the Aurora to us, with motion or light built in. The ideas started to flow once students saw a few examples of what was possible.
    • At the start of the project, we received a bit of push back from the students. Some didn't like coding at first, and others were willing to give it a try, but didn't see the purpose of learning to code in art class.
    • We had A LOT of technical difficulties during those first few coding lessons... it would have been easy for our middle school students to check out at that point, but they were patient while we spent days troubleshooting to solve our technical problems.
    • Figuring out how to attach the computers and related wiring to the art work; teachers and students both had to be creative in figuring out how to "hide" our electronic components inside or behind the art.
    • Creating a to-do list and project calendar
      Learning to create a plan
    • Timing! We spent about two months on the project, but even with that much time we noticed a lot of students unable to schedule their work plan independently. For that reason, we had to build in a mini-lesson on calendaring out project work, and asked the students to create a plan of action for the remainder of the project. 

Outcomes & Successes

  • We were excited to see an organic collaboration happen between students-- as some were ahead in their own work, they'd offer their help to others (without our prompting!) in class to make sure that all of their peers had a project completed in time for showcase.
    • Students discovered their unique talents throughout the project and offered those to others who needed support with that particular skill!
  • After all their hard work, most students were really proud of the productive struggle they
    endured and of their final projects. 
    • In those last 2 weeks before our art showcase, many put in optional extra work during their breaks and lunches in order to complete their art work! 
    • Several who struggled through learning to code verbally expressed their pride in themselves for working, learning something new and persevering to make it work... for anyone who teaches middle schoolers, you know this kind of unprompted declaration is a HUGE deal!
  • In the end, we organized an art showcase that took place the day before our December break, inviting parents, students, teachers and admin from across the district.

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