A case of art for science's sake

25th April 2008 at 01:00
A work fusing aesthetics and physics has set a Scottish school on track for a prestigious prize

A work fusing aesthetics and physics has set a Scottish school on track for a prestigious prize

Art and science are often seen as conflicting ways of looking at the world. But at its cutting edge, science, like art, is a creative search for elegance and simplicity. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann once published a theory that disagreed with seven different experiments. "We figured it was so beautiful it had to be right," he said. And it was.

But opportunities for learners in one field to gain insights from the other are rare - and seldom occurred in secondary schools under the old Scottish curriculum. Now, though, A Curriculum for Excellence has teachers all over the country seeking cross-curricular connections.

At Largs Academy, the science and art departments have been so successful in this search that their collaboration has taken them to the finals of a prestigious UK-wide competition. Awarded annually to teachers of pupils aged 3 to 19, the Rolls-Royce Science Prize is more than just large chunks of money - although at pound;5,000 to each of nine finalists and pound;15,000 for the winner, it is certainly that.

But it is also an opportunity to be associated with one of the most respected engineering companies in the world, says physics teacher Caroline Scott. "There's a feeling you want to do a good job because of the name. Engineers from the company came to the school and fielded myriad questions from pupils. They also offered careers advice and encouragement on the project."

This has seen eight teachers, a textile artist and 80 first-year pupils coming together over the past six months, under the project leadership of Mrs Scott, to design and make 16 kinetic sculptures. These were inspired by images from biology, constructed from chemically treated and dyed materials, and designed to illustrate principles of energy and forces from physics.

In a small additional competition, all 16 sculptures were displayed in a local gallery and judged by leading sculptor George Wyllie.

"He picked our group's," says Phillippa. "I think because there's lots of science in it."

"It is also nice to look at," Ellis adds. "We only used a few colours and we tried to match those in different parts. And it has flying pigs, which are quite cute."

As an engineer and artist, George Wyllie embodies the renaissance and 21st-century outlook the project is trying to foster, and his decision was indeed influenced by cross-curricular criteria, says Mrs Scott. "Things in the world are often simple and elegant and your sculpture (entitled `Hogsquare') is both," she tells the group of five girls.

The other 15 groups that took part created a range of sculptures that convert gravitational, potential and electrical energy into light, sound and motion of assorted shapes, hoops, ribbons, discs and bells that dangle, jingle, spin, swirl, bounce, twist, twirl and turn.

There is DNAtom, which unifies the building-blocks of life and matter; Figo, the robot that represents a Rolls-Royce automobile, and Felix the Helix, whose inspiration comes from bat-wings and caffeine molecules.

The sculptures form a medley of colours, shapes and concepts - an explosion of first-year creativity that's as far from the sterile prescriptiveness of 5-14 as could be imagined. It is also a long way from the starting point of the project, which was a set of scientific images on a computer. "We looked at pictures of DNA and viruses," says Moray. "Then people came from Rolls-Royce and showed us videos of engines and how they worked.

Lessons on energy and forces from Mrs Scott were interspersed with sessions on dyeing textiles in Alan Leishman's chemistry class, and art and design from Janet Cosgrove, to pull it all together. "They took us to an art gallery in Glasgow called Sharmanka where they had amazing mobile sculptures," says Ryan. "That gave us lots of ideas."

The pupils say they will remember the project for a long time. "I learned a lot, especially about team work," says Jamie.

It has been a satisfying six months, says Mrs Scott, and the funding has been liberating. "It has meant a lot of work. But I'm a chartered teacher and I believe you should always be looking for new ways to improve learning and teaching."

- Largs Academy is the only Scottish finalist. Winners will be announced in June.


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