Experiencing hands-on art and science at CMS
Eighth graders adding textures to their clay shapes.

For the eighth grade students in Kelly Wistreich's class at Colonial Middle School (CMS), science and art come together as a hands-on experience.

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In a lesson on states of matter, Mrs. Wistreich challenged the students to create a vessel out of rocks, sand and dirt. When the students' attempts weren't successful, they requested clay -- which prompted an activity led by art teacher Traci Rovinsky, based on the work of regional artist Steve Tobin.

"Whenever a scientist sets out to do something, they have a plan like they're going to make something, they're going to do something, they're going to change something," said eighth grader Grace Lynch. "And that's kind of what an artist does, too."

Largely a sculptor, Tobin works in a number of media, including glass, metal and clay, but some of his more popular works are vessels known as "bang pots." The artists takes blocks of clay, adds texture to them and then lights a firecracker in the top to create the shape. The eighth graders also shaped clay forms and added texture for what would be their vessels.

"My favorite part was when we got to sculpt them the way we wanted to, because it's kind of unique to how we want them to be," said Jack, an eighth grader at CMS.

Using firecrackers to create the vessel shape

Members of Montgomery County Bomb Squad set off the firecrackers to make the vessel shapes.

For the part involving the firecrackers, Mrs. Wistreich and Mrs. Rovinsky enlisted the help of the a Philadelphia-based FBI bomb technician and the Montgomery County Bomb Squad.

"To be honest, I didn't know to what extent the explosives were going to affect the clay. It varied each pot to pot," said Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff and PWHS Graduate Timothy Metz. "I enjoyed doing it, and I even learned a little bit, so it was good."

Setting off firecrackers in Plymouth Township requires a permit, which is why the teachers left it to the professionals.

"Also, it allows us to get the message out there to everybody that this is fun to utilize for an art project or something like that, but there is a significant amount of training that goes behind it for a safety aspect," added Jerry Kleber, Special Agent Bomb Technician with the Philadelphia FBI Office. "Because I would like to see all the kids make it out to their twenties with all ten fingers and ten toes."

Project-based learning with real-world connections reflects Colonial's STEAM culture

Back in the classroom, students added glaze and glass to their pots, continued to learn about geology and other aspects of the planet and collected scraps from lunch to contribute to "vermicomposting."

"Actually, our teacher brought in worms one day, and we were just like, 'Why did she bring in worms?'" said eighth grader Jillian Quirus. "We're doing this thing called vermicomposting, where the worms break down food into compost that makes the soil more fertilized."

The students planted herbs using the compost and the vessels they made.

The students used the compost and soil mixture for planting herbs in their pots. The experience is an example of transdisciplinary project-based learning -- which is a lesson that unfolds over time, pulls from a number of different subject areas and has real world connections.

"I would say that the coolest thing was, with science, insteading of doing something with a textbook, we were doing an interactive hands-on thing like making the clay pots and then looking at the vermicomposting, how it breaks down, and then being able see eventually when they grow, how it works," said student Jason Weick. "Instead of reading about how it grows, [we were] actually being able to experience it hands-on."

The project is the second collaboration between Mrs. Wistreich and Mrs. Rovinsky, who work together as part of the STEAM committee to bring innovative integrated science and art lessons into the middle school curriculum.

Experiencing hands-on art and science at CMS