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Inventive Tools Spark Innovative Designs

03/20/2012

Every fall, as RISD’s newest students begin the creative rite of passage known as Foundation Studies, they tackle a series of three-dimensional design challenges in their Spatial Dynamics studios.

Last fall Senior Critic Deborah Coolidge MFA 80 CR had an unusual challenge waiting for students in her Spatial Dynamics sections: design and build a hand-held wooden tool that can be used to pick up an egg, move it, break it over a bowl and then beat it.

The resulting egg crackers—some of which are on display this spring at the President’s House at 132 Bowen Street—are functional and creative flights of fancy that beautifully capture principles of design and engineering. Referencing everything from a dentist’s drill to ancient weaponry to the elegant beak of a bird, the egg crackers demonstrate the power of the creative process in bringing imaginative solutions to basic engineering problems.

Egg extra2 

“The beauty of this assignment is that all of the tools perform the same series of tasks,” Coolidge says. “But the students go off in very, very different directions and the end results all reflect something about their personalities or creative interests.”

The primary purpose of the assignment is to encourage students to explore the properties of wood as a material, Coolidge explains. This calls for them to saw, shape and make joints as they not only design but also build functional objects. And though the project primarily focuses on design, it also requires ingenuity and experimentation as students work through the mechanics of levers and pulleys and the geometry of wedges and inclined planes.

RISD’s Dean of Continuing Education Brian Smith, a trained engineer who is a natural advocate for the college’s STEM to STEAM initiative, notes that the tools created in Coolidge’s studio beautifully illustrate the inextricable links between art and science that have long fueled invention and innovation.

“People don’t talk about the fact that Samuel Morse, who invented the telegraph and Morse code, was an extremely gifted painter, or that Rufus Porter, the man who founded Scientific American magazine, was a muralist and portrait artist,” Smith says. “I think one of the important questions we have to ask is: At what point did art split from science? Because it wasn’t always this way.”

Smith finds the intricate gears and pulleys Foundation students created for their egg crackers in their very first semester to be mind-boggling. In designing solutions to the problem Coolidge set, students “arrived at mathematical concepts, but in reverse—first by using their hands, then by getting to the equation,” he says.

 Egg story extra 

Coolidge confirms that her students quickly discovered they had to use calculators to complete the two-week project. “They really have to find out what wood can and can’t do,” she says, and in the process, they’re forced to use math in the same way that engineers do. But then they push further. “They do a lot of experimenting and rethinking as they work through these problems,” she says.

The design Benjamin Duff 15 came up with provides a case in point: his “teeth man” tool more than delivered on form, function and craftsmanship. And it also offered a welcome dose of humor, too. With its “jaw” open, Duff’s tool scoops an egg into its “mouth.” By plunging a rod at the back of the tool into the mouth cavity, he’s able to smash the egg. And to top it all off, he flips the tool upside down, allowing the gelatinous egg to ooze out through two nostril holes drilled into the center wood block.

“The class went wild with that one,” Coolidge says of Duff’s demonstration. “But more importantly, each of the solutions presented showed a real attempt to focus on function through an understanding of the material and heightened attention to detail and form.”

related links:
RISD STEM to STEAM initiative
Foundation Studies 


tags: Foundation Studies, innovation, interdisciplinary, STEAM, students

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The men in this 1903 portrait class were serious about the business at hand.