Hampshire Regional eighth-graders explore intersection of art and science during Smith College field trip

Last modified: Wednesday, May 06, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Nearly 60 eighth-graders from Hampshire Regional Middle School descended on the Smith College campus Wednesday to spill water, melt plastic and spin on office chairs until dizzy — all in the name of science.

The field trip was just one step in the students’ exploration of the intersection of science and art that will lead to their creating a kinetic sculpture — a moving creation that will demonstrate scientific concepts. The most common example of that type of sculpture is a baby’s mobile.

Throughout the year, Hampshire Regional science teacher Sue Tracy said she’s been cramming her students with concepts such as Newton’s laws of motion. On Wednesday, they had the chance to see, touch and feel those ideas in action at the Smith College Picker Engineering Program’s Mechanics Playground.

“I want to get them having some application for these principles,” Tracy said.

Five years ago, Tracy teamed up with Smith lab supervisor Sue Froehlich to move middle school lessons out of the classroom. Since then, the duo have planned the annual field trip, which also includes a visit to the Smith Museum of Art, to include concepts from several disciplines.

“We work really hard to integrate the (school) curriculum,” said Froehlich, a Williamsburg resident, who with about 10 Smith student assistants demonstrated different forms of energy at seven stations in the Smith lab.

The most striking was perhaps the 9-foot-tall tornado machine. Its two precisely mounted fans, one on the floor and one on the ceiling, have the ability to create a mini-tornado inside the lab using water mist.

Oliver Roberts, 14, of Chesterfield, spent five minutes intently watching the contraption’s miniature weather system and operating the fans. He said he was so impressed that he plans to build a smaller one for his kinetic sculpture.

Simple circuit

At another station, containers of materials including tacks, cardboard, paper clips and wires, gave students a chance to construct their own simple circuit to power an LED light.

Angelica Vargas, a sophomore engineering major, said she loves working with youngsters.

“It’s fun to see how they get excited about it,” she said. “When I was in school, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to a college and use their materials and explore and do things.”

Vargas explained to the students that in adding an additional LED to the circuit, the positive side of the battery must connect to the positive side of the LED.

The students got a chance to use those circuits in a more grand experiment across the room. Boxes of new Plexiglas rods were quickly transformed into bent creations. Using heat and sandpaper, the students modified the clear rods to explore how the changes would refract light cast from an LED placed at their ends.

“It’s really cool,” eighth-grader Caroline O’Connor of Southampton said of the way the light refracted.

She said she enjoyed the creativity of being in the lab, because, “It’s a lot of physically doing the activity, not just reading about it.”

Just feet away, a mop was at the ready for a number of cleanups during the day. Sophia TenHuisen, a first-year engineering major, was standing by a ladder. Three containers were perched on the ladder’s steps in an arrangement known as a Heron’s fountain, designed to demonstrate basic principles of physics.

TenHuisen explained that a change of air pressure caused the water to move between the containers. The chain reaction continued until the bottom container filled and all the air was driven from it.

She said she was inspired to volunteer because she had not been introduced to engineering during her high school career. “I thought it would be really good to expose other people to some fun aspects of engineering,” she said.


In the open space of the hallway, the simplest of childhood pleasures was recreated for scientific purposes.

Students were encouraged to spin in a series of office chairs to demonstrate inertia. They were then given objects of various masses and encouraged to hold them at varying distances from their bodies.

The closer the students held the objects to their bodies, the faster they would spin.

“It made me very, very dizzy,” said Ryan Wilcox, 14, of Westhampton.

Wilcox, who took part in the spinning chair demonstration about five times, said he learns best through hands-on activities. “It’s a lot more fun than sitting in the classroom,” he said.

As for his project, he said he might create something that uses water power, inspired by the Heron’s fountain.

And Tracy said that’s perfectly fine. She plans to display the completed projects at Hampshire Regional so the whole school can learn from the hands-on science.

“If they wanted to do something with water, it can be in the courtyard — they can make a mess,” she said.

Froehlich said she is always amazed when she sees the Hampshire Regional students taking the concepts they experience in her lab and apply them to their projects.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


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