Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Shadow Sculpture

We just had a fun, crazy and exhausting day for Super Science Saturday, a yearly K-12 outreach by our outstanding Regional Math and Science Center. 

The project had its start when my fellow traveler Heather Harrington sent me a picture of an awesome (and, later, prize winning) installation piece from Anila Quayyam Agha at ArtPrize.  (Here’s a good article about the installation.) When I saw the the RMSC was focusing on light for Super Science Saturday the bulb went on.

Intersections, by Anila Quayyam Agha

How could  that not inspire some excellent art and math?

Our handout gave a little of the background, and some basic steps to cover.

People really gave it a go. Mostly the kids, although we did get a higher percentage of parents trying than expected. (Those who won't join in - what keeps them back? These are folks who are giving up a Saturday for their kid to do science, so...)

Over and over we tried to emphasize:
  • choose or make a structure (math)
  • predict what the shadow will be
  • test it out with a flashlight or on the overhead (science)
  • compose an image to capture  (art)
Some of the results:

Here's a few of the final images. (You can look at all of them, too.)

We saw a lot of good mathematical and artistic problem solving. People measuring struts they'd need, considering options to construct, reverse engineering things they saw in other polytopes. They sought help when they were stuck, collaborated with neighbors and could verbalize what they were doing. They experimented with shadows, trying to figure out what angles of flashlight or position on the overhead showed the structure they wanted.

It was difficult to get people to predict. The ones who did mostly found it more interesting to do the shadows and spent longer trying to match. For some reason, this was the highest level of parental involvement.  The kids who were comparing shadows to a prediction drawing often had the parents jump in and want to see. Some people were interested enough in the connection with their predictions to trace the final

Some of what people seemed to learn about light and shadow is to start thinking of it as a projection from a single source, instead of a silhouette.  People with right rectangular prisms or right pyramids were surprised at what you could see. Kids learned about the moving of shadows with the light source, and the effects of being closer or farther from the source.

Anna's gif experiment
Artistically people divided up between looking for symmetry, being representational (lots of houses) or crazy abstract. (My favorite to see, though when building I always go for symmetry.) There was a lot of pride of ownership - the vast majority of kids wanted to take their structure with them, and they were almost always excited to bring them back to show Heather, myself or a volunteer for the light work. Heather thought it was important for people to have a chance to enter into the art, to interact with the shadows, and that's why we did the overhead projector. It was a huge hit, and there was often a line of people waiting to see theirs on the big screen. Heather's other cool idea was to capture motion, as the changing shadows are visually interesting. We experimented with gif capture and Vines, but nothing was efficient enough to be able to handle hundreds of people.

2100 straws and 1000 pipe cleaners later, we were exhausted but energized. 

We found the small aperture bar straws to be best, and picked up ours at Gordon Food Service, 500 to a box. About half a length was a good basic distance for the projector and flashlights - a whole 8" straw scale was too large. The flashlights were just $1 9 LED cheapos, but they were bright enough for strong shadows in an only half unlit room. The bulk pipe cleaner pack was the best deal, all the same color so as to avoid "I wants",  cut into 5 or 6 pieces was enough to hold two straws together. If a pipe cleaner was loose in a straw, we'd hook the end of the pipe clearner to get a better grip. Originally I was going to cut the straws into Zome like proportions, but it was unnecessary as people mostly didn't make the classic solids. Flickr seemed to be the most efficient photosharing tool so that people could get the photos afterward. Take the picture from within the Flickr app, it uploads automatically, and you can set it to a public album with one touch.

People had the option to leave their sculpture and thank goodness some did because we recycled/cannibalized everything.  

When people had the choice of tons of cool science activities, what kept us so busy? Some of those had lasersI think it was the art aspect. In the other activities, though cool, you were doing what someone told you to do. What we had wasn't for everyone. The option to choose a premade sculpture was good to have (we had about 10 premade sculptures), as it allowed people to still engage in the shadow prediction and art. 

Great day, good to collaborate with an artist, and a lot of creative mathematics. Who knows what mathematics dwells in the hearts of men?

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