For an art, science, and technology class at Washington State University Tri-Cities, the transition to virtual learning was not just a natural one. He played at the sweet spot of the course.
As the course title suggests, students bring together what some may think of as two sides of a coin: art, and science and technology. But for Peter Christenson, associate professor of fine arts, the blending of the two fields is natural.
Throughout the course, Christenson asks students to create devices that are not only visually appealing, but that bridge the gap between physical art and what can be presented digitally online. Sharing these projects online, he said, is an ideal solution for virtual learning.
“The shift to virtual has been beneficial in some ways, especially in the more digitally-focused classrooms,” he said. “It’s essentially a natural extension of everyone’s practice. Our students are brilliant and very adaptable. They are the creative class on campus. I was impressed with their work ethic and diligence… With the social context we are going through, I was impressed with the work the students do.
Rube Goldberg machines
Lots of people have probably seen Rube Goldberg machines on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram Stories – they just didn’t know their name. A bullet or other device knocks down an increasingly complex matrix of movements, devices, and contraptions, all for one purpose: to perform a simple task.
The machines, named after American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who invented the contraptions through his cartoons, serve as a demonstration of what can happen when art is mixed with physics and engineering, said Christenson. It turned out to be the perfect home project in the midst of the pandemic, he said.
While many are stuck at home, the students have taken objects commonly found in their homes to design an intricate layout. The students filmed the moving craft as it passed through its matrix. The video was then shared virtually in class, as well as with peers and friends. It forced students to think critically, while also creating art and entertainment that helps keep students connected, virtually, Christenson said.
“The Rube Goldberg project is a fun opportunity to achieve technical and scientific production through art and creative play,” he said. “It explores the historical relationship between art, science and technology and how these have generally been intertwined.”
The best of both worlds
For the Rube Goldberg project, the class studied complex devices, each choosing a particular style that best suited their idea or task. After creating the devices by hand, the students recorded the machines in action, with the goal of digitally sharing them among themselves in the classroom. They used their creativity to create both a physical work of art and a video work of art through cinema.
Kyle Kopta, a senior graduate in digital technology and culture, came up with the idea for what he calls “The Photo Machine” for his project, where the machine automates the process of taking self-photos. The user turns a handle, which activates a gear mechanism, drops a ball into a tube, and releases a camera shutter.
“In doing this, I want the operator to ask, ‘Are the real mechanisms that resulted in the physical taking of the photo the photo machine? Or could I myself be more accurately described as the real photo machine in this process? “
Kopta built the craft in his apartment, where he also filmed and uploaded the video showing how his machine works. The project also allowed her to explore partnership opportunities with students from other disciplines.
“While working on this project, I was really excited about the high level of collaboration we were able to maintain in a virtual classroom format,” he said. “As a class, we took the time to reflect on each other and look at other artists who created similar machines. For my project, I was able to enlist the help of a friend from the engineering program for some advice and materials. This interdisciplinary approach was the key for me.
Kopta also appreciated the opportunity to engage with his classmates in virtual criticism sessions, where students have the opportunity to give their opinion, evaluate the different projects and what makes them the most effective.
“These critical days are still my favorite school days, and that holds true in our virtual learning environment now,” he said. “Everyone has a radically different approach to these projects, and I’m always surprised at what my classmates are able to achieve. “