Today’s education isn’t the same silo-approach that existed years ago. Cross-curricular projects encourage students to analyze a challenge, considering it in a critical manner while at the same time being creative in how to approach a solution. This philosophy was highlighted this summer at Randolph-Macon Academy when computer science instructor Stephanie Wagner approached World Religions teacher Michael Williams with the idea of doing an engineering project for his class.
To Michael, the idea sounded perfect. He uses a “jigsaw” approach to teaching, in which the students each take a section, learn about it in-depth, and teach it to their peers. This project would take that to a different level, as the students would be creating a technological piece of art that would be suitable for display.
After going through several sketches of how they might create a visual representation of each major religion and how they connect together, student Alan Williams (a rising senior at the Academy) created an engineering sample built out of small cogs used in the robotics program. With a visual sample to go off of, Michael was able to make his assignments.
Each student was responsible for designing a cog for two major religions, as well as a third cog that represented a commonality between the two. Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, are joined by a cog representing peace, while Christianity and Judaism are joined by one that tells of Moses. Smaller religions, such as Wicca, are presented by decorative pieces.
The students used a combination of Adobe Illustrator and hand-drawn artwork to design the cogs and decorative pieces. A laser cutter burned the designs into a wood piece and cut them out. The cog pieces, as well as decorative pieces were screwed onto a wooden backboard. In the center of it all is a larger cog that lists the names of the four students, and also holds an iris and a crank. Upon turning the crank, all the cogs on the board move in unity.
“We spend so much time talking about what we don’t have in common,” said Michael, “that part of the goal we had this summer is to find out what we do have in common. All we hear about what is on this board is what’s wrong with it all. We got to look at what is right. We live in a multicultural country, and one of the things this shows us is that if one of the pieces were to break down, the entire thing would cease to function. For them to see that we all need one another to make this world work, for me was pretty incredible.”
The students were enamored with the project and put in far more hours than the class had required, often staying late in the evenings to work on it. Student Grace Wagner (also a rising senior at R-MA) estimated that the cogs each took two hours to cut out, while her mother, Stephanie Wagner, estimated that from concept to completion, each cog represented closer to about twelve hours of work. Because the work included everything from art and graphic design to engineering and math, the students assisted each other and ended up learning about the religions as they were doing so.
“When students are doing and creating, they learn more,” said Stephanie. “This entire creation didn’t exist two weeks ago. These students will always remember making it, and they are much more likely to remember what they learned in doing so–not just about the different religions, but about the mathematics and engineering and the computer design work as well. This is what the world requires of our students. When you go to work, you don’t only use one skill. You need many, and you need to understand how to use them all at the same time when you’re approaching a challenge. The way we teach our students needs to reflect that.