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Art plus STEM = student-designed machines

Middle-schoolers create some of the prettiest machines you’ll ever see

West Middle School art and STEM classes collaborated to learn how to construct simple machines, with design and decoration inspired by artwork

Byron Center — West Middle School art and STEM students recently joined forces to create simple machines inspired by paintings. 

Janine Campbell’s art students formed small groups with their peers from STEM teacher Trent Veldhouse’s classes and were all given the same instructions and materials to make automata machines. The cardboard creations allowed students to explore simple mechanical elements, such as cams and levers, while creating a moving sculpture. 

Each group chose artwork from a Scholastic Art magazine to influence their designs. For example, one group made a tiny three-tiered cake and plate of cupcakes out of modeling clay, based on a painting by artist Wayne Thiebaud, known for his colorful depictions of commonplace objects like pastries and desserts. Another duo said they chose a photograph of an elephant to replicate because they really liked elephants.

Campbell said this is her third year teaching art and STEM students how to create automata. 

West Middle School art teacher Janine Campbell guides her student in constructing an automata machine

“We want students to understand the mechanics behind creating simple machines as well as how to interpret a work of art into a different medium,” she said. “It is also a really fun, challenging and engaging way to collaborate and problem-solve in our classes.” 

On the inside of her group’s bakery-inspired machine, eighth-grader Quinn Middleton said they used cardboard circles for the cam and cam followers — the circular or oval shaped pieces rotating in a linear motion to create a desired effect — and thin wooden dowels for the axel and handle.

“The cam makes it go up and down, like gears, but they don’t fit into each other,” she said. “The cam followers spin, hitting the cams to make the figures move up and down.”

Multiple students said they learned the oval-shaped cam made their figures spin higher and the circle-shaped cam spun faster. 

An Art and STEM Collaboration 

“This project demonstrates coding in a different way for students and connects both art and STEM standards through the process,” Campbell said. “Students have to use the cams and cam followers to code their machines to move the way they design it to move.”

For their decorations, eighth-grader Cora Ball said they twisted different colored yarn together to make it look like the machine was piped with frosting.

Seventh-grader Josie Spykerman added: “The art is in the decoration and the STEM is in the cams. Art is the fun part because it makes it look cool.” 

At the final showcase, art and STEM students displayed their completed automatas along with the artwork that served as their muse. 

Seventh-grader Brylee DeMaargd said her group picked Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkey” because of the painting’s details.

“We used plastic discs Mr. Veldhouse had in his classroom to move Frida’s head and small monkey up and down,” she said. “We made both from modeling clay.” 

Veldhouse said the project and final showcase were a great collaboration between the art and STEM classes. 

“Our goal was for students to understand the concepts of cranks and cams working together to achieve a common motion,” he said. “They’re also learning about different artists and how to turn art into simple machines.”

Read more from Byron Center: 
History class becomes travel fair, complete with tasty fare
Young ‘makers’ create handmade games to help STEM lessons stick

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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