Balance, Design and Collaboration: Creative Mobiles

Subtle balance is key to the distinctive mobiles designs of the late artist Alexander Calder, known for his kinetic sculpture. When asked years ago how he achieved subtle balance in his work, Calder reportedly replied, “You put a disk here and then you put another disk that is a triangle at the other end and then you balance them on your finger and keep on adding. I don’t use rectangles – they stop. You can use them; I have at times but only when I want to block, to constipate movement.”

Mount Madonna School ninth grade students recently designed and built their own original mobiles inspired by Calder’s work as part of a physics class unit on Center of Mass combined with modern art, abstract art, formula math, 3D printing and fabrication and collaboration. Teacher Lisa Catterall, a strong proponent for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics)-based creativity and learning, regularly engages students with hands-on problem-solving lessons.

“The ideal STEAM project includes a technology component, a self-expression question or prompt, the engineering design cycle, calculations, and a scientific concept,” said Catterall. “They should be placed within a unit that includes habits of mind and 21st century skills such as collaboration, mindfulness, and self-discipline. I like to add a building skill and an art technique, although if you have the right balance of the other components the kids discover those as part of the process.”

Working in small groups, the students created a mock-up of their mobile design. Freshman Ronan Lee said having a mock-up helped him learn about balance and see how the weight was distributed among the mobile pieces. Nearby, classmate Aria Huth twisted a fine aluminum wire together to form the outline of various leaf shapes for the “branches” of the mobile referencing reforestation that she was making with classmates Violet Forbes and Morgan Westbrook. Her teammates, meanwhile, soldered the wire segments together, and remarked that by far, the soldering had been the most challenging piece so far.

Students used an array of lightweight materials to fashion their mobiles – from shaped and cut hand-colored plastic sheets hardened and shrunk in a toaster oven (homemade Shrinky Dinks), to 3D filament pens, a 3D printer, cardboard, wool, paper, markers and colored pencils.

Freshman Samuel Caudill explained that he, along with classmates Wyatt Pope and Corey Mensinger, created a satirical look at what’s wrong with our world and represents the “futility of life.”

“Our project has two sides. On one side, we have nutrition, (a carrot), happiness (a happy face), sunlight (the sun), and the American flag (for freedom or our government, however you decide to see it). All these items are within the corporate jail cell. On the other side, we have two additional branching paths. One represents school, and one representing social life. The school provides you with money and a degree, but the social life provides you with sports and relationships. As commentary, between these two paths we have a man who died trying to balance the two!”

“An interesting way to look at, or justify, building STEAM programs in schools is that STEAM modes of learning actually make students more creative and more empathetic,” commented Catterall. “The same pathways that light up when students feel empathy light up when students are using art in school.”

When students are allowed to express their own individual creativity and what is really true for them through their work, they begin to identify with it,” she continued. “The true magic of STEAM education is that it allows all students to identify with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If a child can build a project using motion and engineering that expresses something about themselves and their personal context, they have suddenly discovered their inner engineer.”



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Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.