Students' creations on display

Krystle Wagner • May 6, 2017 at 11:00 AM

Throughout the summer, Grand Rapids Art Museum visitors will have a chance to view and interact with Rube Goldberg machines created by Grand Haven students.

Teams of fourth-graders from each of Grand Haven’s seven elementary schools designed and built the machines as an interactive component of the GRAM’s The Art of Rube Goldberg exhibit. The opportunity was also in collaboration with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District.

Prior to the partnership, students in grades K-4 learned about Rube Goldberg as part of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) unit.

During a kickoff event, teams were given a mystery box with supplies they could include in their machine.

Some common items the teams received were steel ball bearings, marbles, ping-pong balls and a rubber chicken. Other items received included a K’NEX roller coaster and a ZOOB stem kit.

S.T.E.M. teacher Alex Harsay said students were excited to be part of the opportunity. Harsay oversaw the Mary A. White and Rosy Mound teams, which named their machines Graffiti Glow and Rosy Mound Chicken Flingers, respectively.

“I think that any chance we can to have our students create something for an authentic audience really helps to drive up student engagement,” he said.

S.T.E.M. teacher Ian Overway, who oversaw the Ferry team, said it was painful yet inspiring as students struggled to bring their ideas to life, but noted that the struggle helped students build resilience, persistence and problem solving skills.

Rosy Mound fourth-grader Maggie Sorrelle said she liked finding “crazy things” to help her machine, such as the plunger and “rock and roll thing.”

“It doesn’t feel like learning. It’s just fun,” Robinson fourth-grader Maya Deaton said.

S.T.E.M. teacher Tina Scott, who oversaw the Griffin and Lake Hills teams, said she loved that the opportunity gave students a common goal that required them to work as a team.

“Through the course of brainstorming, testing ideas, and redesigning – and the frustrations that come with this process – students learned how to communicate with one another, as a team, working on one task,” Scott said. “We talked about listening, being open to ideas different than our own and embracing the ‘natural’ roles we each have in a team. Some students excelled in the brainstorming phase, while others are better decision makers. Grand Haven Area Public Schools fourth grade students grew through this collaboration between S.T.E.M. and the GRAM.”

Christopher Bruce, director of learning and creativity for the GRAM, said the program is “one of the coolest things” he’s been part of. He noted that the excitement reached far beyond the students, and into parents and grandparents.

“It was a really phenomenal experience,” Bruce said. “I can’t wait to see them on opening night.”

Although the GRAM frequently partners with schools, Bruce said it’s the first time they’ve co-created an experience as in-depth as this exhibit.

Bruce said they believe in working together, and this time the museum took a step back and told the teams they have the gallery.

Any expectations Bruce had going into the collaboration were blown away with the end result, he said.

From themes, sets and pieces that are inside jokes among the team members, Bruce said students created “phenomenal machines,” and noted that he hopes students remember that everyone is creative.

S.T.E.M. teacher Andrew Ratke, who oversaw the Peach Plains and Robinson teams, said the opportunity gave students the chance to solve a problem in different ways.

“Students were able to use their strengths, be collaborative and be open to creative solutions,” he said. “There were design and engineering elements to this project that forced the students to solve problems artfully and be resilient after numerous fails. We want students to realize that every failure put them closer to a solution.”

Before S.T.E.M., students used to ask Overway why they had to learn something, and the project gave students an authentic audience.

During the last few days of building the machine, students started questioning how a younger child or someone in a wheelchair could be able to reach their machine. Overway said their back-and-forth was inspiring, and it showed that the students are developing empathy.

“In part, in that moment, the kids have already internalized what I had hoped they would learn from this experience,” he said. “Beyond that, I hope they enjoy seeing others interact and enjoy something they created. I feel confident that feeling will continue to empower our kids to be the curious and creative problem solvers.”

As the public visits the exhibit, Bruce said he hopes people understand that art museums are fun, and not a place where people have to be quiet.

Ratke thanked the OAISD and GRAM for the opportunity and support.

Scott said the Grand Haven S.T.E.M. team is brainstorming what this project will look like next year, where it could be displayed and how to incorporate more projects that put students in charge of the process and the final outcome.

Harsay said that it’s important to provide students with S.T.E.M. opportunities.

“Our goal as educators is to help prepare students for jobs that may not currently exist, which is quite a challenge,” he said. “S.T.E.M. opportunities allow students to work on their critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as collaborate with each other to solve problems.”

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