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Students drink deeply of cultures while making cups with masks


Kaia Thorson had leftover clay once she molded her vessel

In Stephanie Cionca’s art class at Northern Trails ⅚ school, sixth-grader Theo Barnes recently put on his best “I’m working with precision here” face to trace a mask he had drawn on paper onto a clay cylinder he had formed.

A few days later, Theo and his classmates added glaze — making sure to coat the oft-forgotten rim and to dab their brushes liberally into cracks and crevices, lest one day a drop of milk or juice serve as the perfect spark for bacteria to grow.

Theo Barnes smoothes features onto the face of his clay vessel

Then it was into the kiln for firing at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. “When we add the heat, chemistry will happen,” Cionca told students.

What came out were drinking vessels inspired by real-life cultural masks. Her sixth-grade STEAM art students infused science, math, history and geography into their projects.

They studied Japanese Nôgaku masks, Northwest Coast Native American masks, and Maori meeting house masks to inspire their own creations, which depicted animals, exaggerated expressions and in some cases, lots of color.

“Making it in general was kind of hard, but the glazing part was easy,” said Annika Raese.

Carter Nemmers, left, and Figgy Figueroa load classmates’ clay vessels into the kiln to be fired

More math awaited even after the vessels had cooled. Students filled the inside with beans; if they had accounted correctly for a 25 percent shrink rate, the vessels would hold the same amount as before they were fired.

“I am absolutely delighted about the way the kids were able to tie in skills from so many subject areas,” Cionca said. “They realized that when their clay dried, it was a physical change, but as soon as they saw it fired they said ‘Wait, we cannot get this back to its original form so it must be a chemical change.’ It is thrilling when the kids connect subject areas in this way.”

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Science meets art, STEAM results

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She 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 or email Morgan.

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