Engaging your students in a design project that incorporates creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and real-world applications can inspire them to think innovatively while igniting curiosity and empathy in their artistic process. I love giving my fifth-grade classes a collaborative, design-centered challenge to solve. My goal in creating this unit was to encourage risk-taking and coming up with solutions to the challenges of creating a prototype.
Left: A birdʼs-eye view of the 3D-printed sculpture garden. Right: Students created paths throughout the garden for mini-robots to tour.Left: A student designs a sculpture using a CAD program. Right: A student takes a photo of their 3D-printed CAD sculpture.Left: A student participates in a Chopped-inspired art challenge. Right: A mixed-media sculpture created during the Chopped challenge.
The unit begins with a presentation on sculpture as an art form and sculpture gardens as a place to exhibit art. The presentation includes videos of world-renowned sculpture gardens, famous sculptors and their work, and a close look at materials used in creating sculptures. We discuss what makes a sculpture, the importance of scale and form, and how sculptors create a design that is visually compelling from all sides. We also talk about how a sculpture garden is conceived, funded, curated, and designed.
The Chopped Challenge
To get students thinking three dimensionally like a sculptor, I give them an Art Chopped challenge (inspired by the Food Network show). I give a baggie to each student that contains foam shapes, pipe cleaners, beads, and a foam sheet piece. Then I share the rules:
Don’t open your bag until the clock starts.
You must use all of the “ingredients” in your bag. You may also use pantry supplies on your table (glue, scissors, wet sponge, markers, and pencils).
Your sculpture must look interesting from all sides.
Your sculpture must be able to stand independently.
You have fifteen minutes.
Ready, set, design your sculpture!
Excited students begin to brainstorm, creative chaos erupts, and the countdown to epic designs begins. A clock on the whiteboard counts down the time as the sculptures begin to emerge. This motivational challenge sets the wheels in motion and gets students thinking with a design mindset.
Designing with CAD
During the next class, I lay out the objectives of the lesson: Design a sculpture that complements nature, in particular the environment of Eastern Pennsylvania. I say, “Our sculpture garden will have four seasons. How can you use the seasonal changes, sun, and shadows to your advantage?”
Students are introduced to Tinkercad, a 3D design application they can use on their iPads. To get acquainted with Tinkercad, students work through basic design lessons using the program. I then list requirements for the sculpture’s height and width, hollowing the core, and grouping shapes.
Students finish their designs and airdrop them to me. Next, I divide the class into table groups and each group completes a series of tasks before creating the platform for the sculpture garden. Each group creates a design for the platform, and the class votes for the favorite.
Collaboration and 3D-Printing
All fifth-grade classes work on one large garden model. Students move naturally to areas of personal interest—some prefer making the terrain of the park, while others work on the trees, lakes, landscape elements, or even entrance sculptures.
Other students gravitate to making paths through the garden for mini robots to tour and stop to gaze at each sculpture. My young programmers create codes for the robots to move about the grounds. This is a five-week project that students absolutely love.
The final component is to create an artist statement using a template I upload to our online platform. Students’ classroom teachers integrate this into their language arts lesson. Meanwhile, 3D-printed sculpture prototypes are painted, photographed on a small green screen, then dropped into a photo of a park or garden before joining the sculptures on the platform.
This hands-on collaborative project gives my students an immersive design experience. I love watching them grow as artists, seeing them collaborate and use social skills to solve problems as they become creative risk-takers. I inspire them, they inspire me, and great things happen.
It is our job as educators to create an environment that encourages innovation and allows our students to dream. Watching them in the creative process reveals their thinking, struggles, and problem-solving prowess as the designs they visualized turn into finished pieces.
Students love showing off and explaining the design process of the sculpture garden to teachers and younger classes. When I hear the tone of enthusiasm and ownership in their voices, it makes me so proud of the accomplishments they have made.
Bette Naughton is an art educator, an adaptive art consultant, and the author of Adaptive Art: Deconstructing Disability in the Art Class, available from Davis Publications. BetteNaughton@msn.com
Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
Art teachers provide engaging opportunities for students to explore the world of media arts. Elementary students contribute 3D-printed prototypes and mini robots to a collaborative CAD sculpture garden, middle-school students apply the elements and principles while designing donuts in Microsoft Paint 3D, high-school students combine digitally altered photographs of hands to create a powerful narrative, and more.