« more RISD stories
Inventive Tools Spark Innovative Designs
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.
“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.”
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.
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
“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.”
tags: Foundation Studies
RISD STEM to STEAM initiative