Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Affordances of Clay: Dome Model Making by Students and Parents

Documentation of the children's dome work to date, including watercolor renderings and sketches
Utilizing clay as a building material offered our architects yet another design challenge.  The weight of the dome continued to be problematic.  It was also difficult to figure out how to help the dome retain its shape.  Clay would offer us another medium for figuring out our engineering problems on a small scale.  At first the children were invited to work individually on their clay domes, and encouraged to use the body of design knowledge that they were developing.  The children talked as they worked, sharing ideas and strategies and thinking through new ones as their hands and minds shaped the clay.   

Will columns alone do the job of holding up a dome?

Three basic models emerged:
Domes supported by columns
Domes supported by walls
Beehive shaped domes with oculi
Why are plans and model making important? 
E.S. :  Because if you've got [a plan] in your head, you might want to add on, but you might forget a lot of the tiny parts.  You might need to draw it out first so you can share it with other people.  You can't just talk to 300 people at once to share your idea [thinks of the number of workers it took to help Pippo complete work on the dome].  

L:  Because if you start [a project], you might forget what you were going to do.  You go back and look at your plan.  

E.K.:  You might want to start small [scale] and grow bigger.
I:  You have to think about how heavy materials are.
T:  It shouldn't be top heavy.
A.L.:  The bottom [of the dome] has to be heavier.  
Thinking of Pippo's dome:  M:  A really big problem would be if you didn't have a plan at all, and the whole thing toppled over while people are in the church.
E.S.:  You'd have to take another sixteen years to build it.  

What problems were your trying to solve in the models you made?
E.K.:  To make it steady enough.  Make sure that the columns supported the dome.
L.:  How to support he dome.
T:  If you made an oculus and you put a floor under the oculus, there would be no point in putting in an oculus [i.e., it might support the dome, an oculus helps to let in light].  

The next round of model making in clay was a little different - we next asked the children to work with a partner and use their collective knowledge and experience to make a plan together.  When they worked individually, we allowed the children to use as much clay as they wanted to - now we challenged them to use a limited amount of clay, to be mindful that building resources would be limited on any architectural project. We remembered that the one architect in the design competition had proposed building the Duomo out of wood, but that if his plan were followed, they would have to cut down a significant portion of Italy's forests. Once their plans were developed, the children got to work:

N.S. figures out a combined approach – columns to help reinforce the walls to support the weight of a dome

His partner, A.C.:  When we did our second dome, we worked together and came up with a brilliant idea to use a column and a wall.  I did the wall, and N.S. did the columns.  He did the drum and I did the dome.

Meanwhile, R. thinks about Pippo's dome - eight roof sections to make an octagonal dome, and his partner E.K. works on incorporating an arch on their building to help support it.

R:  This was easier than last time because I didn't build the dome right on top of the structure. You built the structure separately.  

C. is thinking about how to keep the curve of the dome – maybe shape the clay into a bowl?  His partner gets the columns ready to support it once it's ready.

T:  C. was making the dome and not [using the method of] scratching to attach.  
So I reminded him.  Our dome was top heavy.  
I. and P. met with little success at first – it was hard to keep the dome curved.  For their second attempt, they tried a novel approach:  what if we use a bowl and cover the bottom of it with clay and let it dry and then add it to the walls?  

Unfortunately, as the clay began to dry, their dome cracked.
I.:  P. and me didn't even get to put it on and it still wasn't curved.  

Others met with difficulties as well:
M:  The walls were too thin.  
W:  Yeah, that's what happened to us.  If you only have columns, they might get weaker and crack, but when you have a wall...
I:  ...there's more structure.  

Was it easier or harder to create a dome when your resources were limited?
T:  It was harder with the limited amount, but easier because we just got to work together and we got to get our own thoughts and put them in together.
M: It was easier the second time because it gives you a better view.  I liked the second round better.  
A.C.: It was actually easier with limited [materials] because we had a partner and we split [the clay] in two.
W:  It was easier  because I decided to make this one a little bit smaller than my first one.  Then we actually had some left over.  

As it turns out, Sabot's spring Teacher-Parent Dialogue Night came fast on the heels of our clay building work, and so the question was posed to the children:  should we ask the parents to try the work that you have been doing in clay?  The answer was a resounding yes, and so we asked the children to reflect their understanding by creating blueprint plans and written instructions (complete with building advice) for the adults who might attend.

What will be important to put in your blueprint?  
T:  It's a plan and then you follow it with directions for building.  So you have to have directions too.  

The children thought about the lessons they had learned in all four rounds of model making - Wikki Stix, plasticene and straws, and clay - individually and as partners - and formulated their plans for the adults.  In their instructions, the children shared with the parents what was hard, what worked well, and what didn't.

Making clay domes is hard work! 

J's dad's hexagonal dome
A.C.'s mom's clay dome creation
R's mother's innovative dome design

W's mom's welcoming clay temple
L. and E.S.'s dad's dome, complete with welcome mat   
L. and E.S.'s mother's second attempt at dome building 

T's father's miniature dome, complete with cactus
(per T's original proposed plan)
Left and right:  E. and G.K.'s father and mother's dome work

The next day in class, the children got to take a look at the adults' creations.  
Many of the children were surprised to hear that many of the adults 
faced the same frustrations and challenges that they had.
Just as the students do with their own work, 
they provided feedback to the parents:   

Gallery Walk:  Did the adults follow the children's plans and advice?  The adults' models were paired with the children's instructions.  Looking with a critical eye...

Excerpts from Letters to Our Parent Architects/Engineers:

I really like your work, Mom and Dad.  Mom, I like your wall. Dad, I like your wall.  Mom, I like that you did not give up.  Dad, I like your oculus.  Love, G.

Dear Dad, I love your dome.  I LOVE the cactus!  It is AWESOME!  The oculus is a perfect size.  Love, T.

Dear Appa, you did a great job following my instructions.  I think it is cool that you made a window.  I also think the shape is cool...also the oculus.  I think you worked very hard!!! Love, J.

Dear Mom:  Thank you for making [a dome].  It's so beautiful.  You did a great job. P.S. I like how you had the columns instead of the walls like the one I made.  E.S.

Dear Mom: I liked the gargoyle.  Your dome is good too.  Your dome curves more than mine.  Your columns are sturdier.  From R.

Dear Jason:  I think the cactus is very, very, very, very funny!! [Your dome] sort of reminds me of the Pantheon!  It's amazing.  I'm so stunned!!!  From I.  

And from M:  Dear Self:  I am writing to myself about several parents and I decided to talk about E. and L.'s parents.  First, their dad Tom:  Tom's dome had four sides that he attached together.  And the doormat has the word "welcome" on it. And apparently L. says that he (Tom) forgot a lot of stuff on her blueprint.  He has an arch/doorway for the entrance.  He has columns inside of a wall (not saying that's bad or anything)...

The parents' work allowed them the opportunity to experience the challenges we as a class took on in our dome project.   Sometimes it is hard to know the work of the class without experiencing it for yourself.  What may have looked like a child's lump of clay begins to reveal itself as a learning process full of careful deliberation and experimentation.  Creative risk is something we strive to cultivate and encourage, and embracing mishaps and "failures" are part and parcel of the process. 

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