Wednesday 7 December 2016

Living Sculptures with Grade 3

As grade 3 students were finishing up a "Sharing the Planet" unit about plants and about to start a new "How We Express Ourselves" unit about the arts, we introduced a project to design and create Living Sculptures around the school. Living sculptures are just that--incorporating plant life into sculptures, blending art and science into works of art that are constantly changing. 

Here's the presentation that we worked with to frame the project:

The students were really engaged and took ownership right from the beginning. They researched different kinds of living sculptures on the Internet, they formed groups and exchanged ideas. They presented to each other and settled on a few ideas that they thought were manageable. They planned out what materials they would need, what jobs would have to be done and of course helped dig everything up and put it all together. These sculptures should be around for years to come. How empowering that must be to an 8 year-old to be able to have that sort of impact on their school. We are lucky to be at a school where we are permitted to do this sort of thing. Indeed, they turned out so well that it looks like the area where we put them will become a living sculpture garden where we will be able to continue building new works in the future.

This group worked on a sort of teepee that will soon be covered in vines and hopefully offer some shade from the hot Singapore sun!

This group was interested in upcycling. They made a giant maple leaf (we are the Canadian School after all...) out of coat hangers that will become a trellis for another climbing vine.

Monday 5 December 2016

Welcome to the STEAMlab (repost)

(Below is an article that I posted on what was going to be the blog for our school Makerspace/STEAMlab. When the school ended up moving to a closed platform on a password-protected LMS, the blog was abandoned. I just came across it and thought people might find it interesting. Two years in, I am as committed as ever to the idea of giving students ownership not only of their own projects, but of the space itself. I've had a lot of visitors recently from educators that are looking to start their own Makerspaces. Hopefully this may provide an interesting perspective.)

When people ask me about the Design classes that I teach, or about the new STEAM program that we are starting at CIS this year, I like to share a favourite story about the Tuskegee Institute. If you don’t know about the Tuskegee institute, it was a historically black university--one of the first-- founded in the late 1800’s by Booker T. Washington in the state of Alabama and boasted George Washington Carver among its prestigious instructors. The university was established on land that had once been a plantation. The first course that they taught was masonry. Why masonry? There were no buildings on the land when they started. The students, quite literally, built the school.

This story somehow left an impression on me professionally and has influenced a lot of what I do in the classroom. On my very first day of teaching, for example, for the very first lesson I ever taught, I remember dragging all of the furniture out of the room and into the hallway. My grade one students’ first task would be to figure out how they wanted their classroom to look. I wanted it to be their classroom. After every couple of months, we would have a discussion about how it was working, then we would drag everything out into the hallway and start again.

Here at TK, we’ve worked  hard to ramp up our Design program these past two years. We’ve incorporated a lot of new equipment, from drill presses and scroll saws to DSLR cameras, 3D printers and LEGO robots. Our students have played a very central role in how this has come together and with their own hands and their own sweat, have helped to transform the learning space into something more conducive to the sorts of projects they wanted to do. They helped to build workbenches so that we could do some woodworking with real tools. They helped build different work tables with storage so that we had a place to put our projects. We have been slowly replacing the furniture that the school purchased with our own creations. At each step, we discuss what we need. We use 3D modelling software to design the space and the furniture to simulate how it will look in the room when it’s finished. We learn the basics of technical drawing so that we can draw up the plans. We learn to use a range of powered and hand tools safely in order to complete our projects.

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We used a 3D modeling program called SketchUp to help us to design the learning space.

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We developed our drawing skills to make a plan.

More than a dozen students have helped design and create this work table over the last couple of months. Many of them volunteered to come at lunch and after school to help work on it.

Our new furniture has helped us to transform what was just a normal classroom before into a fantastic Makerspace where students can work with a broad range of tools and equipment.

What we are doing is not new. At least not to some of us. Perhaps we grew up with a basement full of tools. My dad and his brothers made soap-box derby cars together in the garage. My grandfather and I made crystal radios from cereal boxes. We learned other skills from tinkering around at home as well. Maybe we learned to cook together with our parents in the kitchen. Or we learned to sew when Baby Bear got a tear.

Many of our students have not grown up in households with opportunities to tinker or even do many things for themselves. And it’s amazing to see how excited they get when they do get to work with their hands. I sometimes have a lineup of students that want to come in at lunchtime to help tear apart wooden pallets with a pry-bar (who wouldn’t?) When learning so often happens in the abstract, it can be very empowering for students to see their efforts lead to an actual product--especially when it’s a product that has genuine value to real people. Imagine how they feel when they can walk around school and see something that they made that was a real contribution to school environment, something that makes someone’s life easier. Even as I am writing this, I have a group of students building a bench for our ECE students so that that have someplace to sit when they are taking off their shoes. That bench should still be here for years to come.

The Design and STEAM Programmes provide students with opportunities to engage in hands on learning activities where they have ownership to solve authentic problems and to build the school that meets their their needs… I hope you are as excited as we are!

Friday 24 June 2016

Future World at Singapore ArtScience Museum

Kudos to the Singapore ArtScience Museum for their fantastic new permanent exhibit, Future World. It is a wonderful collection of interactive digital installations, some of which are evocative and beautiful and others whimsical and fantastical. It was created by Japanese artist collective teamLab who work with artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects to transform spaces to create their otherworldly experiences. Often when sharing the vision of STEAM with parents, students and other educators. I find myself giving examples from the world of robotics or industrial design to try to help them see where the various disciplines intersect. I'm thrilled to have something with more of an art focus to be able to share--something that could never happen without serious collaboration between experts of these different fields. And the exhibit is expected to stay for at least the next 3 years.

100 Years Sea Animation Diorama speaks to environmental concerns as slow haunting music plays and we watch as islands are slowly swallowed by rising sea levels--from the comfort of a pile of beanbag chairs in the middle of the room.

Sketch Town and Graffiti Nature are really the highlights of the exhibition. Visitors sit at tables with colouring sheets and crayons and colour pictures (in Sketch Town, it's spaceships, buildings and trucks, in Graffiti Nature, it's sea creatures), scan them and then watch as their illustrations magically appear in 3D, driving, swimming or flying across the wall along with everyone else's pictures. They are interactive as well. My son coloured in a spaceship and as it flew slowly across the wall, he could wave his hand over it to make it go faster. 

This digital, interactive hopscotch was fun to watch. My youngest could have stayed on there all day.

It's hard to get a sense of this one from the photo but it was pretty cool, standing in a room surrounded by thousands of little LED's lighting up in various patterns that look like they go on forever. I made an LED cube with an Arduino last year that was only 4x4x4 and I thought it was mesmerising to look at. This was basically the same thing except it's the size of a room and you're standing in the middle of it. Hypnotic.

I used to run a workshop to introduced students to generative art (digital artworks derived from mathematical algorithms) using a tool called Context Free Art. It's still available on my wiki here in cased anyone is interested. I later expanded on this with a 6-week unit about Generative Art to introduce my MYP Design students to computer programming. We used a language called Processing that was created specifically for artists and designers as a way of teaching programming concepts in the context of the visual arts. If you want to know more, check out It's a website with over 150 short videos that take you slowly, step by step, from basic to more advanced programming concepts. The site's creator is an artist himself and the examples he gives are always inspiring.

Now that we have this exhibit here in Singapore and it's going to be here for a while, I hope to revive some of these projects and see if I can use this as a vehicle to inspire some more kids to start programming (and hopefully get some teachers onboard too!)

Thursday 9 June 2016

I Learned it all on YouTube - Part 1

Featured Favorite: Bruce Yeany

My first year running the STEAM program at TK has been one of the most productive of my life in terms of learning new things and immediately putting them into practice. Whether it was the use a particular machine, piece of software or a construction technique, YouTube has continued to be my first stop when I needed to learn how to do something. I want to write a few posts to acknowledge some of the people that have helped me on my learning journey and provided me with so much knowledge and inspiration 

This week, I'll start with Bruce Yeany's channel, Homemade Science. He's a science teacher in the public school system in Pennsylvania who designs and creates most of his own equipment and regularly posts videos of the projects that he does with his high school students. Everything is presented clearly and is easy to follow and from what I have read in the comments, he's quick to reply to questions and willing to share digital files of his creations if you contact him directly. The projects he does are always interesting and are often things I haven't seen anyplace else. Here's an example where he makes a homemade speaker from a DC motor:

Here's another one where he cuts a piece of wood with a Dremel cutting wheel made from a sheet of paper:

More than ten years ago, I picked up this little tumbling toy at a tiny, old toy shop in Liulichang in Beijing. It was mesmerising to watch it move and I always thought it would be a cool project to try to replicate it with kids. 

I forgot about it entirely until I came across one of Bruce Yeany's videos where he makes a few different variations on this toy. I tried it with a class of grade one students the other day and it went over really well.

His channel is truly a goldmine. There are more than 100 videos that he has created himself. I'm thinking about starting a Bruce Yeany fan club. It's that good. Check him out.

Monday 6 June 2016

More Light Painting with the Little Ones

For our third session, the kids came to me with more ideas of their own, They drew spirals in the air that came out pretty well.

And then they started tracing around one another. We found that the 3-second exposures were too short.

We kept experimenting and managed to get all the way up to 8 seconds and were still happy with the results.

By this point, the kids were able to do most of it on their own--turning the lights on and off, clicking the button on the remote, tracing one another with the lights. We even had two kids tracing their 'models' at the same time. Awesome!

Thursday 19 May 2016

Ice Cream Tricycle Trailer

I got the idea to make this while working on a unit with our Junior Kindergarten kids about things that move. I brought my own kids to school on a weekend and we mucked about in the Makerspace and managed to put something together in an afternoon.

I pulled the tires off of a bicycle that I had found in the trash and cut a couple of circles on the router table out of some MDF. They are attached to the spokes of the wheels with zip ties. I drilled holes for some dowels and made a little hinged door. 


I built the frame from some pieces of recycled 1x4 from some old shipping crates and a 2x2 that I cut from a pallet. 

I drilled a hole in the end and drove a carriage bolt through it to make a hook to attach to the bike.

We filled a 64oz. protein powder container with ice and salt in alternating layers.

Then inserted a water bottle filled with cream, sugar and at the kids' request, some Milo.

Then we put it in the bike trailer and used a little duct tape to hold it in.

We hooked it onto the back of a tricycle on the playground and the kids took turns riding around churning the ice cream.

After 20 minutes, there was a thick layer of frost on the outside of the container.

It came out a little grainy, but frozen well-enough to call it ice cream.

It was pretty tasty and the kids enjoyed it.  The trailer was a bit rickety afterwards and a couple of the dowels came off while I was carrying it back to my room. 


For the next version, I will have to use thicker pieces of wood in place of those dowels. I'm also thinking to use a container for the ice cream mixture that isn't perfectly round so that it sloshes around a bit more as the drum rotates. This might make for slightly less grainy ice cream,

It was a fun project and if you give something like this a try, I would love to hear about it.


Wednesday 18 May 2016

Decoupage Cajon

I picked up a bunch of old comic books for my kids at an outdoor market last year and when I found them a few months later with covers torn off and pages falling out, I thought they might make cool wallpaper or maybe covering some furniture. A little research uncovered the tradition of decoupage--decorating walls and furniture with coloured paper--that dates back hundreds of years. Some artists will create a collage of images, while others will create a single picture or design. On furniture, the paper is usually covered with a number of coats of varnish. There are fine examples in museums all over the world. This decoupage screen can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. 

While I was making cajon drums with grade 3 and 4 students (more on that in an upcoming post), we got an idea to try some decoupage on one of them see how it went. We found a recipe online that suggested mixing white PVA glue 1:1 with water, but this ended up soaking up the papers and causing it to buckle as it dried. We bought a few containers of Mod Podge and that worked better. 

One of our craftier teachers here suggested that I try using a spray adhesive first, to get the pages to stick, then use the Mod Podge overtop and that worked the best. Since the Mod Podge runs about 8 dollars for a single container, this also helped it go a bit further. I've worked with a few brands of spray adhesive this year and really like the 3M stuff. The other ones I used get gummy around the nozzle, but this one works great every time.

So here's how it came out:

I'm very happy with how they look and they have been able to handle kids sitting on them and beating on them without peeling. 

When our librarian saw them, she asked for us to do a couple of tables that she had in the library. The EdTech coach at our school runs a book club for boys, Books for Blokes, and they were keen to take up the challenge. We were thrilled to find a new way to help some reluctant readers develop a deeper connection with the library.

The Mod Podge provides a pretty thin protective layer that isn't really enough for heavy use, but it will protect the paper well enough that you can put a proper varnish overtop without discolouring or damaging the paper underneath.

This was a great project that the kids really enjoyed. And as far as educational outcomes go, the Marvel vs. DC arguments certainly justified the time that went into it.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Light Painting with PreK

We have been having fun with light painting for a unit our PreK students (3 years old) have been doing about light and shadow.  First, we took some corrugated cardboard and covered the windows of the multi-purpose room to black it out. (White velcro tabs in the corners worked fine and you can barely see them when you take the cardboard down.)

I had some kids from our Makers Club help me set up a DSLR (Nikon D3200) on a tripod and do some experimenting with the settings. We settled on 3-second exposures with the aperture set to F8.

I found these great little LED lights that fit on the ends of your fingers and for the first session with the little ones, we just messed around to see how it worked.

I was actually planning to move on to some new learning engagements with this class but this went so well that we decided to keep going and dig a little deeper. In class, the teachers had the students practice drawing shapes and numbers in the air with their fingers so that when they came back to me they were pretty good at it. Here's how some of the better ones came out (I flipped the pictures on the computer--much easier than getting the children to write backwards...) :


Having a remote control for the camera made this a lot easier. I was able to assign someone to turn the lights on and off and someone else to take the photos.

The next step is to try to calibrate my printer so I can print a few of these out really nicely...

Iconic Design: Bic Pen

  I bet we all have one or two of these. Learn the story of this perfectly designed product. (I question his argument that the pen caused an...