Threshold of Beauty is an interdisciplinary project I designed that fuses music with sciences. As part of this project, I have collaborated with a number of organizations to bring new music to students and adults alike.
My Threshold of Beauty project kicked off officially with a two-week residency at Crossroads Elementary in St. Paul, Minnesota. They run a year-round K-6 program that doubles as a science magnet and Montesorri school. They are also home to a nationally unique learning space called the Inquiry Zone, which is the equivalent of a small science museum. Naturally, I immediately felt that Crossroads would provide an excellent environment to share my passion for music and science.
I was paired with an enthusiastic group of about 15 students, mostly between 4th and 6th grade, thanks to the help of teachers Britt Forsberg and Zach Brain. My primary goal during this residency was to introduce these students to contemporary music, film, and art through the lens of several exciting science experiments. But on my first day here, I wanted to focus on the process of creating a piece of art.
To begin, we first needed to establish definitions for art and science. After a bit of discussion, we decided that art is any form of human expression and science is the study of the physical world. Pretty intelligent kids, right (they also listed obscure topics like seismology and meteorology as examples of science)?! I followed that up with a few unique pictures and asked them whether they thought it was art, science, or both. What do you think?
With that in mind, I wanted to give the kids a chance to experience the difference for themselves. So we started with the concept of surface tension, which is a common property of liquids. There are several experiments that show surface tension and I chose three of them for this demonstration. The first two I showed were simple experiments that use dish soap to lower the surface tension of water. Both were interesting enough, but not particularly artistic. So I asked how we could make this concept more artistic. The students chimed in, “more human expression.”
This brings us to the milk and food coloring experiment. This great little experiment requires a shallow plate of whole milk, as much food coloring as you want, and dish soap. Here, we can drop food coloring on the milk in any pattern we choose. Then when we add just a touch of dish soap and the colors explode out in all directions (within the confines of the plate thankfully) for several minutes. This gave the students a chance to really be creative. In general, the girls wanted to find the most pleasing assortment of colors and the boys pretty much wanted to see how many colors they get on the plate at once. Check out some of their great work below.
The last step here was to ask how we could turn this into a more permanent form of art. We just went through the experience of creation and the next question is, “how can we share this?” We could take a picture and use photography as our medium, but that doesn’t really convey the true beauty of the experiment. Another option would be to record video and use film as our medium. Everyone seemed to agree that film would be a great way to capture the motion of the colors. This presented a good opportunity for me to share some of my own work with the students as I took the film concept one step further and added an electronic music score. This adds another artistic layer to an already fascinating experiment. Check out this audiovisual piece below.
So, the surface tension experiments successfully showed the students how to think about creating a piece of art and now I just wanted to solidify that knowledge. So we switched our focus to magnetism and started the process over. The students were all aware of magnetism and did not consider it to be particularly artistic. This was confirmed in our first experiment, where we had a bunch of paper clips that we could manipulate using a small magnet. It was fun to play with, but there wasn’t much room for human expression. Then I added several magnets of different shapes and strengths to see if that would improve anything. The students agreed that they could create more interesting structures now, but it still fell short of art.
This led me to introduce them to an interesting material called ferrofluid. This is a black liquid containing magnetic particles that actually form into a solid with the presence of a magnetic field. In our case, ferrofluid takes the shape of the magnetic field lines emanating from our magnets. This unique fluid also shows in great detail how different these field lines actually appear based on the shape and strength of each magnet. The contrast of liquids and solids, the variety of the magnets, and the detail within the ferrofluid now gave the students a chance to really express something. One of the students, Bennett, proclaimed “this is better than games!” Here are a few pictures of the process.
And finally, to wrap up this concept, we again discussed how to make this a more permanent form of art. Fortunately, I had also done an audiovisual piece based on ferrofluid, so I could share with them another example of finalizing an artistic idea. Check out this piece here.
Overall, it was a very successful first day. The students got to see and learn about several different science concepts while approaching them with the mind of an artist. They had developed an understanding of the initial process of creation and had laid a strong foundation for the lessons to come over the next two weeks. Keep an eye out for new posts to learn more about this residency!