US enterprise beams down into Brent

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Harvey McGavin discovers how an American artist's enthusiasm for creativity and innovation helped Year 9 pupils at a Wembley school bridge the gap between art, science and technology.

Vincent Jo-Nes holds up a small, pink plastic dish. "What's this?" he asks, swooping his arm through the air. "That's right, it's a flying saucer! Or,with a piece here, it could be the Starship Enterprise."

Jo-Nes is a big Star Trek fan. He's also an artist and a scientist with a unique educational vision. For his latest mission, he boldly went to Wembley High School in north London to work on a 10-week, cross-curricular Energy Project.

He works with humble materials - dismantled televisions, videos, radios and clocks supplied by local retailers litter the school's art room. A lunar landscape, its deep-blue airbrushed background cratered with circuitboards and electronic gadgetry, sits on a desk. Vincent flicks a switch and suddenly it crackles into life - as a radio!

Vincent, his freckly face beaming from under an orange baseball cap customised with flashing lights, explains his philosophy: "We tend to perceive arts and science as completely separate subjects. What I am trying to do is to get across the idea that science can be imaginative and inspirational. They all had the idea that science wasn't about creativity - as the project has gone on that notion has been turned around."

By taking apart redundant machines ("junk is a terrible thing to waste") he explains the function of each component and then encourages the students to create their own contraptions using the discarded motors, pulleys and dials.

"Through their activity, students learn about concepts which might seem difficult in theory. In the classroom it might take them three or four weeks to understand about resistors or polarity but doing things this way it takes them three or four days, because they actually experience it. That for me is the biggest thrill - it makes learning fun."

A self-confessed nerd ("I was always the guy with the chemistry set"), Vincent was brought up in Boston and moved to Chicago in his teens. After graduating from high school he joined the Marines and went on to use his forces training to work as a US government consultant and NASA engineer in Japan.

In 1983, he was on a US military plane that was hijacked by Russian jets and he was kept hostage for six weeks. The experience made him decide to begin work as a full-time artist and sculptor, an interest he had begun with paint-by-numbers kits. He has since won 20 best-of-show awards, exhibited at the United States Museum of Science and Industry and his work features in the collections of Dr Who actors John Pertwee and Colin Baker and Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy. America's first black astronaut Mae Jemison took one of his fluorescent "asteroid buttons" up in the space shuttle Endeavour.

The Wembley High School project was set up after Vincent came to the notice of Brent Council's Museum Arts and Promotions Services following a cultural exchange between the London borough and Vincent's home city of Chicago.

Art teacher Julie Haigh is full of praise for Vincent's influence on the pupils who have taken part in the project and the way his methods have livened up the national curriculum.

"The kids love him. They were even coming in to school over half term just to work on their models. It has been a very inventive way of dealing with attainment targets."

Vincent has helped students sculpt their creations in art lessons and design and put together the moving parts during science and technology lessons. The project has also given students a chance to learn associated words from other languages while drama workshops explored the theme of energy through improvisation, English lessons looked at science fiction and geography lessons at recycling.

"It's noticeable that pupils start to divide subjects off between what they think of as the logical and creative subjects at Year 9 when they make their choices," says Julie Haigh. "This project has made them stop doing that so much."

The school's TVEI co-ordinator, Taha Ebrahim, has been similarly impressed. "He has bridged the gap between art, science and technology. His boundless energy has rubbed off on a lot of students and given them the inspiration to want to learn."

Vincent's speech is full of little catch phrases. He calls his work "envisioneering", making "futuristic artefacts" through "right hemisphere thinking" and a "hands-on, minds-on" approach. One of his favourite tenets is Einstein's belief that imagination is more important than knowledge. He tells a story about a similar Sony-sponsored project he did with Black and Hispanic children in the US, and chuckles when he remembers listening to the company executives talking in Japanese about the commercial possibilities of the youngsters' ideas. Then, before you can say Buck Rogers, he's begun tinkering with a technological cast-off on another flight of imaginative fancy.

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