Patterns and STEAM Learning: a Workshop for the October 2019 NHAEA Conference (Part 1 of 4)

Welcome! Here you’ll find a few examples of some of the projects we’ve been discussing in this workshop.

The following are Banded Pattern Designs created by 6 and 7 year-olds, following a discussion about the experience of Patterns – both the patterns that are within us and the larger patterns outside of us that help form the world within which we flourish. We discussed patterns that we could see, hear, and feel as well as the patterns that people create as part of our many diverse cultures (patterns that are intrinsic to human music, visual arts, dance, language arts, gardening, cooking, building, architecture, caring and healing, etc. (We reviewed this discussion at the Oct. teachers’ workshop and its significance for helping children understand intellectually / verbally how completely they belong to and are embraced by Nature, and how they themselves, as part of their unique set of gifts and birthright, are able to express and create their own beautiful patterns that can be of use to themselves and others.) We noted how an awareness of Patterns is a fundamental discovery not only in the arts and in terms of human psychology and sense of attachment and aesthetic meaning, but also in the Empirical Sciences. Pattern and Matter & Energy: flows, cycles, and conservation constitute two of the Seven Cross-Cutting Concepts that are essential structures within the Next Generation Science Standards.

We went on to have some actual hands-on (and hopefully, fun) practice creating our own patterns – even as we learned about the ways that our ancestors across the globe expressed intriguing insights about the way the world works coded into such beautiful and symbolic designs. We tried banding our papers into colorful strips and then within these spaces, imitating well known patterns (such as Sun Disks, Suns and Stars, Days and Nights, Cretan Waves, Meanders, Foliated Stems, Eggs and Darts, and Flowers and Seeds (Life Cycles), Thunder Lines, Clouds, Pearls, and Chevrons) which I drew step by step on the board. (By the way, I also pointed out at this time that I prefer using colorful, soft chalks on a blackboard for this phase of the lesson, although in many schools I’ve had to rely on watercolor markers on a paper flip chart or whiteboards and environmentally-questionable whiteboard markers, or(of course) Earth-costly, unreliable ‘smartboards.’

After that initial explanation and the pattern making exercise, participants are invited to create their own original patterns using a dot matrix method. They are encouraged to continue each pattern across the entire page, an instruction / practice which fosters persistence and focused attention (executive function skills).

Here are a few results from this process when it was tried by first graders.

Throughout the year (and years) more pattern design projects can and should be explored to provided opportunities for applying and developing skills and insights.

A useful example of this spiraling process, begins with a study of the patterned designs on an actual three dimensional amphora. To make the project more enjoyable (and to boost their art history knowledge and imaginative thinking capacities), the youngsters learn the traditional names for the parts of a pot. These present a charming analogy to the parts of the human body (from mouth, lips, neck, shoulders, belly, to foot)

Next, we use this project to strengthen their awareness of symmetry. As they stand next to their desk and put their two hands together, they’re asked to notice how their left hand perfectly matches their right one. Now we begin a discussion of the concept / idea of ‘symmetry,’ and English word derived from the Greek words for equal measure (here’s an example of the math in STREAM). We can check directly and observe that our two hands are equal in measure to one another – just formed as perfect reflections / mirror images of each other as well. We notice our classmates two eyes, ears, arms, and legs and our own eyes, ears, arms and legs and realize that human bodies could be described using this word ‘symmetry.’

We talk about the fact that most vertebrate/backboned animals have symmetrical bodies (even many insects such as butterflies and crickets. We comment that if you thought about it, you could imagine that they have a midline, and if they could somehow flatten out their bodies and fold them along that midline, then the two halves of their body would match just like our hands do. We wonder about why this might be. We try standing on just one foot and discover how much harder it is to balance when we’re not standing with a symmetrical base. We talk about this and consider that bilateral symmetry (and other types of symmetry we’ll discuss later) might provide a little more stability…

Next the students learn an art technique for creating perfectly symmetrical paper cutouts – in this case in the shape of an amphora. ( Later, we’ll use this same method to make hearts, butterflies, paper dolls, stand-up animals, and other cut paper projects. ) The technique for this amphora project involves carefully folding a piece of paper in half and placing/matching the folded paper’s midline to the straight side of a pattern that shows half of the symmetrical object being produced – in this case, the amphora. The pattern is carefully traced with a pencil and then the student cuts along the resultant line. Next they unfold the paper. A perfectly symmetrical object should result! As scaffolding for my first graders, I often made symmetrical templates (not halves) out of a distinctive color, labeled these as PATTERNS, and then instructed the children to match the pattern to the folded rectangular construction paper fold to fold before doing the tracing of the curving contour of the amphora. That made the task much more intuitive for some of them. I also cut a path through the base of the handle or handles for less advanced students. For more skilled youngsters, I taught them how to cut a hole right in the center of the handle area – a nice skill to learn for those who were ready. (STEAM Aside for teachers: Can you envision how physically matching a piece of material to its template and cutting out objects to create symmetrical forms could help build students’ cognitive and motor memories of this process? Can your principals, school boards and student families understand this as well?. Do you see how this sort of activity can generate a useful foundation for later conscious insights and verbal formulations that will be useful for science learning? Can you imagine how these kinesthetic activities could possibly make the idea of RNA and DNA transcription more richly evocative and meaningful when your youngsters learn about this in 6th grade life science, or when they encounter (on a larger scale) processes such as mitosis, cell division or budding eukaryotes?

Here are several sample amphoras that first grade students cut out and then decorated with their own original banded patterns. Unlike this young artist, some students this age are not as concerned with developing beautiful banded patterns that continue all across the amphora. And this is to be expected. I might try to encourage such children to continue the patterns a little further across the width of the object, but if that isn’t their plan, I certainly have learned to accept that.

This assignment is often followed by a 3 D clay project in which the children construct little thumb pots (without handles) using air dried clay (ideally) or good quality modeling clay. We discuss radial symmetry and balance with regard to the form of these small vessels. The children add bands of beautiful, encircling, incised patterns (usually using simple straight elements such as x’s, and v’s or plain verticals, diagonals, and / or horizontals). I show them how they can also create interesting 3 D crenelated patterns around the clay lip by simply applying pressure, using their fingers directly, or a twig, a pencil, or clay tools. Some of the incised patterns they produce are inspired by illustrations of NE Woodland Native American clay cooking pots from a thousand years ago. The reference illustrations are taken from an excellent book published by the Lincoln Historical Society in Massachusetts with support from the Massachusetts Archeological Society. Here’s the basic citation. Braun, Esther K. and David P. Lincoln Center, Massachusetts: Lincoln Historical Society, 1994.

These photographs show a few of my sample pieces, some student work, and the reference drawings that were inspiring our patterns. I would also draw some of these patterns on the board.

This is a project that was typically part of the first or second grade curriculum.

More experienced students would try a coiled method with more precise decorations. We would also discuss in greater depth the cone shaped base of these cooking pots – which is thought to be an adaptation for better heat conduction when the vessels were placed in or over the actual fire pit. There is a charming and detailed narrative of the process of making one of these coiled pots contained in chapter 11 of Howard Russell’s beautiful book Indian New England Before the Mayflower, Hanover, NH and London, England: University Press of New England, 1980. I used to read this to the students in summer programs at a local nature center and this passage added considerably to their understanding of how ceramic production was interwoven with daily life.