Hazel Wood visits a school in north London where an ambitious cross-curricular project to create a multimedia light installation involved more than 200 students
When darkness falls at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, north London, the tall, stark, squared-off chimney of the school boiler house is transformed.
Brightly coloured symbols of energy - light bulbs, windmills and waves - flash in random sequence up and down its length, and passers-by often stand rooted to the spot, mesmerised by the effect.
This unusual installation is the spectacularly successful outcome of the Stoke Newington School energy project, completed last autumn after a year's hard work. "It has affected behaviour and inspired the staff," says Helen Wood, the school's media arts co-ordinator. "Everyone's proud to be at a school that does things like this."
Helen led the class-based project to create a lasting artwork for the school, involving a whole year group (Year 8) and feeding into all curriculum areas, with energy as the theme.
Through their contact with Creative Partnerships London East, the school got in touch with Matt Gould of Soda Creative, a Hackney-based technology company specialising in play, learning, and creating specially commissioned artworks.
After much discussion with teachers to decide what each department could contribute - the trickiest stage of the project - Soda suggested using the chimney for a sound-and-light installation, with linked speakers and a computer screen. Not only did it fit the theme, it was also slightly away from the main buildings, so less distracting to classrooms.
After structural calculations, the architect for the project, Christopher Shanks, approved a number of individual lighting units to be attached to the side of the chimney facing the playground and linked to speakers and a computer screen at the base.
A computer program would take readings from the digital sound-and-light ratios to create changing light effects up the side of the chimney.
In February 2004, 30 Year8 humanities students travelled to the Alternative Energy Centre at Machynlleth, in Wales, to research different energy forms and report back to the rest of their year group. At a special assembly, they demonstrated what they had learned about renewable and non-renewable energies.
Pupils in science, music, maths and English classes then produced the digital content, and in art and design and technology they designed and built light units.
All 240 students worked on the final project - 175 of them on more than one element. Science students made short films of experiments illustrating the transformation of one kind of energy to another. In maths, pupils modelled data on school journeys, and in English they wrote poems. Music students produced minimalist music. All the contributions feed into screen displays at the base of the chimney and govern the sequence of lights.
Art students researched images of energy, visiting Tate Modern to look at Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's famous representations of waves and to see what a light installation could look like. Then, with the help of Soda, they set about creating designs for the light panels, working to a template of 400 dots.
Design and technology students constructed the watertight light unit casings designed by the head of department, Paul Soffe. Then the light-emitting diodes were fitted and soldered onto printed circuit boards.
The only outside help needed, for safety reasons, was with welding the aluminium frames.
With 45 panel designs and 9,000 laser-emitting diodes (LEDs) involved, it was a race to finish the technical work before the installation, which was organised by Matt.
This was a dramatic time, since the higher-level panels had to be installed by a specialist climbing team suspended by ropes 30 metres above the ground.
Finally, on September 24, parents and supporters watched in awe as the first explosion of coloured lights snaked up the chimney and the installation was officially launched. Since then, it has been shortlisted for the New Hackney Design Awards and has been featured by Soda at an exhibition at the ICA.
"The nice thing is that the people at Soda are tremendously proud of it as a piece of art, not just as an education project," says Helen.
Matt says the school's commitment to the project made it a real collaboration between equals - something he'll look for in future partnerships.
The project is ongoing, since the digital content can be changed and developed by successive year groups, giving them a direct involvement in the installation. Chris Cullingford, head of art, is particularly pleased at the boost it has given to science. "It's sometimes seen as a slightly drab subject, but here you can actually see an exciting light installation reacting to an exciting science experiment at the bottom," he says.
Develop a project
* Decide what your objectives are and how many pupils you want to involve.
* Work out how much time you can you commit, when, and for how long. Don't be daunted by the scale of Stoke Newington's project. Smaller ones, such as a visit from a local poet or artist once a week to one class for one term, can be just as effective.
* Look at businesses and organisations in your area, such as museums, art galleries, theatres, architects and design firms, and find out if they are willing to help.
* Explore national organisations, such as the Poetry Society, which runs inservice training days for teachers, organises poetry roadshows in various areas of the country, and supplies visiting poets to schools.
Email: info@poetrysociety. org.uk
* Find out if your borough is a Creative Partnerships zone. CP runs conferences and professional development sessions on topics such as fundraising for teachers in the target areas in which it operates. These areas are listed on its website, which also describes current projects.