By Helen Widman
The orange orb at the end of the long metal rod disappears back into the reheating furnace, turning slowly as the artist uses gravity and patience to bend the orb into a perfect round shape. The orange orb isn’t really orange, and it isn’t just an orb: it is clear hot glass. The artist holds the glass out to the middle school students watching in the audience so they can feel the heat emanating from it too.
Christine Durkin, art teacher from Cornerstone Academy, received a project grant from the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF) to teach her art students the science behind the materials they work with in their class. Durkin first learned about the project grant through attending a CGIF Teacher Training Workshop and quickly found the connections between the science and art.
“It was really exciting for me because I’m not a science teacher, I’m an art teacher, but I saw so many ways that we could incorporate this into our classrooms,” she says.
After completing some of the CGIF Materials Science Classroom Kit lessons with her students, Durkin brought her students to Glass Axis, a hot glass studio in Columbus, Ohio, so they could see hot glass up close and create their own glass paperweights.
“Without CGIF, I wouldn’t have even thought to do it. But we use so many materials in the art classroom that are used in science as well,” Durkin says.
One example of ceramic materials found in both artistic and industrial realms includes refractory materials, such as the refractory bricks that line the inside of kilns. This type of brick, which is the focus of the CGIF “Hot or Not” lesson, is designed to withstand extremely high temperatures in order for the ceramic pottery to reach their desired firing point.
Independent glass artist Madi Cano taught Durkin’s students about the hot glass at Glass Axis by creating a piece in front of them while narrating the science behind the art and then helping the students create their own paperweights. To make the paperweights, the artist first gathers the clear glass out of the furnace, and then helps the students apply the color by rolling the glass on glass “sprinkles” called frit. At this point, the glass is so hot that it still appears orange.
The student, with the help of the artist, then reheats the glass in the furnace to incorporate the color into the glass, and once it is hot again, the student has the option to poke air bubbles into the piece or twist the color around inside with large tongs. Each paperweight then comes out as an artistic piece unique to the student who shaped it with swirls of color inside.
“One of my favorite parts about teaching is all of the very interesting questions that we get. Some of them are really good questions, especially from little kids,” Cano says. “But I would just say being able to teach something new to everybody every day; it really is cool to be able to see everybody’s first reaction to it.”
Even though most of the students had never learned about the concept before, many of them left the hot shop with newfound knowledge about glass science and its distinct connection to art and everyday objects.
“Science is creation and creativity, so making that connection between art and materials science is really important,” Durkin says.
One student named Anzal Osman showed a particular interest in the science behind the art and says the experience taught her how ceramics and glass materials are made.
“I learned about how ceramics can turn into glass, I learned about metals, plastics,” she says. “I talked to one of the PhD students. We talked about different things and what materials science is. He introduced me to it.”
When asked about what she knew about materials science before the field trip, Osman says, “Nothing. I didn’t even know it existed.”
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