It's the start of a new year and students are once again filling the seats in front of me, with their own unique set of expectations, skills, and challenges. I enjoy the beginnings of things. Teaching offers a rare opportunity to start new and fresh on a consistent basis. The mistakes from the year prior only serve to improve practice and rethink philosophy. The lessons that tanked, can be reworked and the ones that hit the mark can be repeated without effort, making work-life a little simpler and sweeter.
The inclusion of design as a stand-alone course in the art department is still a decision that makes me proud. More and more I become confident that this set of skills has the power to benefit ALL students, not just the kids going into art. This year I look forward to thoroughly analyzing and assessing my design lessons because, despite a common misconception among non-educators, that's what teachers do. At the start of the course I make a habit of asking the students to write down 2 key points they learned from the day's lesson. This helps me to understand what is really sticking with them from my hour long influence. It is clear through this feedback that they learn key, fundamental points from the following "first day" project.
We start the course off with some marshmallows and toothpicks. This is not a unique project. In fact, I am certain I did some version of this myself in school. The students are asked to create a structure that is as tall as possible but also as unique looking as possible. The instruction that follows comes naturally through their discovery and challenges based on this task. We define form and function as they relate to the task at hand. The understanding of these two words carry a lot of power in my class. Once they comprehend these things, the doors of design open wide.
The students notice right away that the marshmallows don't hold as much weight as they'd like. They realize quickly that to make it as tall as it can be, doesn't leave much room for interesting aesthetics. As they're struggling with these little tools, I drive one of the most important lessons: the difference between form and function and how the process of planning and limitation of materials effects the outcome and design.
This very common but powerful exercise introduces the students to the concepts right off the bat while breaking the ice and offering some course "buy-in". A condensed version of the lesson is to the right -- hopefully it is as helpful to you as it has been for me.
1. Students will be given mini marshmallows, toothpicks, and the simple task of creating a structure that is as tall as it can be while maintaining an interesting and unique aesthetic.
2. Students are able to break into pairs, groups, or work individually.
3. The teacher will encourage the students to consider strength, balance and the overall look of the structure.
The design problem:
Students are asked to create the structure to be as tall as possible while exhibiting a unique aesthetic. They aren’t asked to just make a building, but it has to have a specific function. This is the design problem give to them.
The design process:
Students sit and think before they start to come up with a plan. As they begin their building, they consistently work around problems that arise and design solutions. I like to point this out them as they are working so that they begin to realize their own process of working and how that related to the design/engineering process.
Working with marshmallows and toothpicks is not easy. The marshmallows change shape and the toothpicks aren’t strong. Students notice this right away. A connection can be made to the availability of inexpensive materials compared to what might be the best material for the job. Discussion points about cost and availability is easily made after the students become frustrated with their structures falling down.
Form over Function
How does one affect the other? What challenges arise in the attempt to have both form and function?
Many of the projects that are created in this course are solved with dramatic, over-the-top solutions which can’t actually be created in the classroom. When a student has a perfect idea for a product design that they can’t actually make, it is frustrating for both the student and the teacher. It can be difficult to stifle a creative idea knowing that our materials will not support it.
Using the experience of the marshmallows is a great way to explain to students why an idea does not work, even though in theory it makes sense.
We've been lucky enough to have been gifted many children's books over the years; I'm talking multiple bookshelves worth. We're also fans of the library, so apart from the occasional bookfair flyer home from school pressure we rarely purchase new books. Maybe its because most of our books are hand-me-downs, but It never ceases to amaze me how poorly written many of the books out there are. I mean, some of them are downright horrible. I feel embarrassed for the author while I am reading them to my 2 year old. For example: Just this morning I read a story about 3 ice skating elephants. The first two (a male and female) skate fast and slow, but always together. They are apparently an item. The third comes along and catches the male elephant's eye. He becomes so dizzy with the thought of skating with the new elephant that he falls through the ice. His original girl comes and saves him, so now he only will skate with her. Anywhooo...
When I come across a great book that happens to also deal with design, I can't help but share it. Two such books written by Chris Van Dusen are the top of my list and are definitely worthy of purchasing new. If I built a House and If I Built a Car both involve a clever little boy who while bored with his average house/car invents a new design for each. The stories are both great examples of how the imagination can make life way more interesting. In IF I BUILT A Car, Jack designs a vehicle that embodies a typical childlike fantasy with its hide-a-way pool, conveyer belt snack bar, driving robot, and retractable wings. VanDusen touches upon designing for the 5 senses with ideas like an engine that converts gasoline fumes into a more pleasing smell (like blueberry muffins) and even considers passenger safety with a special polymer gel exterior that doesn't dent.
The humor, whimsy, and practical lessons of the design process make this probably the best book I have read to my kids so far and one perfect for the classroom. Plus, it rhymes, and I am pretty sure that all children's books should rhyme.
This book does NOT disappoint the older student. I have read it to my 8th graders as a fun break from designing their linear perspective interiors and every one of them sat quietly with wide eyes as I read. Even my 10th graders enjoyed flipping through and remarked on the design process that the book covered.
Special thanks to Aunt Vicki for gifting If I built a House!!
I have been teaching art and design at the middle and high school level since 2006 and learning about both for a lot longer.