STEM ed through mask-making

Alivia Beckett holds her mask in place

Seventh-grader Matthew Bahman pulled a pink plastic shower cap over his blond hair and lay back with his head on a table. Classmate Martin Esho dipped a strip of plaster into a bucket of warm water and placed it over Matthew’s right eye.

Matthew’s face was protected by a sheet of plastic wrap, with holes cut out for his nose. Was he nervous about trusting Martin to immortalize his visage?

Not at all. “I’m just going to relax,” Matthew said as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Meanwhile, Claudia Swenson rushed back and forth from the sink to each plasterer and plaster-ee with clean, warm tubs of water. Claudia said she has been looking forward to this project all year, “because there’s painting, and I’m pretty good at that.”

But first: a lesson in gloppy, crusty fun, and overall: a career exploration.

Some 120 seventh-graders in Whitney Goulooze’s art class at Mill Creek Middle School this year are being introduced to the special effects industry.

Evangelynn Detmer smooths plaster on classmate Alivia Beckett’s face
Evangelynn Detmer smooths plaster on classmate Alivia Beckett’s face

Working in pairs, students followed a four-step plan laid out by Goulooze: work quickly and keep the plaster wet, smooth and overlap every piece, use the plaster sparingly and do a good job for their partner, who would be returning the plastering favor the following day.

The lesson begins when the semester does. First, students watch “Face Off,” a special effects competition series on the SYFY television network. Then they cast their own silhouettes, which act as a shell. The shell is attached to a base of wood, either horizontally or vertically, in order to make it look like the face is emerging.

Before they plastered their classmates’ faces, students had already drawn and colored a design plan. When the casts are dry, they will choose areas on the plan to recreate on the plaster in 3-D, to enhance the effects and even morph into a separate design. Finally, each mask will be painted and sealed.

“They love the ability to fabricate their designs from 2-D into 3-D,” Goulooze said. “It’s a great way to work their fine and gross motor skills.”

And like most projects in the middle school, she added, “I strive for ones that can be easily fixed or that give them the ability to improvise as they go. This age group needs that option.”

Goulooze said the project has become a tradition for seventh-graders. “An experience more than just making art, it has evolved from a mask to an installation piece. It’s one of those projects I will always do.”

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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