We are all familiar with STEM but what is STEAM? “STEAM” takes the standard STEM formulation (science, technology, engineering, and math) and adds an A for arts. The movement, led by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) encourages the integration of Art + Design in K-20 education.
It is not about teaching art as a separate discipline but exploring where art naturally fits. Proponents of STEAM suggest we can be better engineers by learning how to think creatively through challenging design projects, like this one.
Our design team at SIGMA became part of a RISD graduate’s studio in a recent fabrication project combining art and engineering. Rebecca Manson, an artist specializing in ceramics, was creating an eight foot diameter sphere made of thousands of small porcelain parts. Ms. Manson describes the piece as…”a look underneath our skin at the enduring structure that all humans share”. By recalling what is known as the ‘Overview Effect’;.. “the principal that when one sees the earth from space, feelings of deep love and concern for the planet reportedly wash over them…” the sphere represents a memorial to the planet earth. This stunning ‘union of bones’ created with paint over glaze over pigmented clay results in layers of color that change with light, angle and personal perspective. Only a very talented engineering and fabrication team would be able to make this project a reality.
Fortunately, the artist found SIGMA Design.
The giant, extremely fragile sphere had to be constructed in a mold, one half at a time. SIGMA’s challenge was to construct the internal structural framework, which would support and align the sphere to rotate about its vertical axis. Solid knowledge of geometry, strength of materials, and adhesives was required. Testing was done on the materials and their flexibility under various conditions and temperatures. Too much rigidity in the structure or adhesives would have caused the structure to break.
When the first half was delivered in its ‘nest’ a rope ladder was constructed to allow work on the internal structure without stepping on the delicate ceramic shell. When the internal structure was done and secured into the shell, it was time to release the shell from the ‘nest’.
If you have ever tried to turn a warm cake out of a pan, hoping it would come out in one piece without breaking, you might understand our anxiety as we carefully turned over the nest. Would this giant sculpture come crashing out destroying months of work on the ceramic pieces? Would it require a bit of coaxing, tapping, and gravity, like that cake?
We held our breaths, turned it over, and, well- it was stuck! Twelve hours later we had the sculpture safely out of the nested mold, which then returned to the artist’s studio for the creation of the second half.
Rebecca’s team got to work and weeks later we had the second half back in our shop. Upon delivery of the ‘northern hemisphere’, SIGMA got to work on joining the halves, and installing the pedestal.
Throughout the project, SIGMA’s ability to support the artist’s vision while working within the realities of math and physics was a unique challenge. The idea that STEAM education might make these types of collaborations happen more often is very exciting to us.