Brainstorming nuclear art

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Students will be able to express their nuclear research through an artistic representation of their findings.

Big Idea

Art is a medium that can visually communicate complex ideas, including scientific ideas .


Unit Overview: This unit, called Passion, Power, and Peril, is an inter-disciplinary unit between two classes—English and Chemistry. In Chemistry class, students will learn about nuclear chemistry, but they will also research a specific aspect of the nuclear power industry. They will use this research in three ways. First, they will write a one-page paper for a Chemistry grade that explains how nuclear chemistry connects to the research topic. Second, students will write an informative/explanatory research paper that answers your research question by showing the complexity of the issue for an English grade. Finally, students will use their research and writing to create a piece of artwork for a multimedia art display designed to challenge the audience with weighing the costs and benefits of nuclear technology.

In this process we would like students to consider the following questions: How does society evaluate costs and benefits of a technology?  What are the costs and benefits of nuclear power plants? 

Lesson Overview: In this lesson students will transition their thinking toward the end product of the expedition. Visiting artist Barry Freedland makes a presentation to students to show how nuclear technology is depicted in a variety of artistic expressions. He then challenges students to start to think about how they could use images to express a viewpoint regarding nuclear power.

This lesson aligns to the NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea of HS-PS1-8. Develop models to illustrate the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and radioactive decay because students will need to represent some ramification of this process in their art.

It aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information because while scientists typically do not use art as a medium for communicating, students will have to communicate their understanding artistically. Their ability to do this hinges on their understanding of the underlying nuclear processes associated with their nuclear research topic.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, no special knowledge would be needed to follow the artist presentation, but my students do come to this presentation having already conducted research about some aspect of nuclear power plants, and they have begun to study the underlying nuclear chemistry that fuels them.

The materials needed for this lesson include the following: laptops and printers. This process was also greatly facilitated by our visiting artist. A school art teacher may be able to present in a similar manner.

Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: This will be one of the few days all school year that I do not have a task waiting for students when they walk in the door. Instead, once everyone is seated, I introduce the artist with a brief biographical sketch he has provided for me:

BARRY FREEDLAND Barry Freedland's sculpture unveils his ongoing fascination with the intersection of time, technology, human abilities and limitations. His work ranges from minute to large installations and combines playful wittiness with supreme technical expertise and craft. Incorporating interactive, robotic and performance elements, he employs a wide range of materials and concepts that inspire us to reflect on human nature and consciousness, and the relationships human beings have with machines and technology and vice versa.

Barry Freedland's work has been exhibited in numerous shows, including the Boca Raton Museum of Art; Berkshire Art Museum; Blüetenweiss Gallery, Berlin; the Boston Center for the Arts; Real Art Ways, CT; Arlington Museum of Art, Texas; Santa Fe Institute of Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. Freedland was born in Detroit, Michigan, and currently works at his studio in Florence, MA.

I reason that this is a good way to start class because I want students to know that today is something special. It is not every day that we get such a distinguished guest, and I want to act like the host of such an event.

Activator: The artist begins by showing slides 1-8 from his Springfield nuclear art slide show; these first slides are pictures of his art. I am glad that he did this because one of the first questions students asked when they heard he was coming was whether he was a real artist. After showing the robot  he designed (slides 1-2), and how he turned himself into a human paintbrush controlled by a joystick (slides 7-8) I believe all students recognized that they were dealing with the real deal.



35 minutes

Lecture: The artist's slide presentation continued for this part of the lesson. During this part of the lesson students did not take notes. it was a fast moving presentation and I thought it was more important that students keep up with the presentation. The artist kept them involved by soliciting their ideas about what they saw throughout the presentation.

The artist begins by explaining that sometimes art can express things in a way that words cannot. Slides 10-14 show a kiss, a man being kicked down a flight of stairs, a building and a coastline being wrapped in fabric, and 30,000 barrels. Each says a lot without using words.

From there, the artist talks about how art can be used to say something specific. Slide 15, for example, is a library from the Holocaust that has been turned to stone, and slid 17 is a South African embassy htat has a swastika projected upon it.

Then, the artist discusses different mediums that artists can use. Slide 19 is chocolate and lard that the artist gnawed on, then spit out, and used this partially digested material to make lipstick and chocolates. Slides 21 and 22 are porcelain sunflower seeds that represent the Chinese people under a government that cares more about the economy then the individual. Slides 25-28 show a machine that can digest food and make feces. Slide 30 shows a genetically engineered rabbit that glows in the dark.

The artist challenges students to think about what types of materials cannot be used for art, and the answer is that all objects can be used, though perhaps not all objects should be used.

The artist then transitions into discussing nuclear art. This first video shows the artist discussing slides 42 and 43. The subject is how uranium used to be used as a paint pigment in Fiestaware. This second video relates to slide 45, in which the artist briefly discusses how nuclear power came after nuclear weapons. In the third video the artist discusses how modern understanding of nuclear power comes in part from popular culture that does not really understand nuclear science, and the result is that nuclear technology gets treated as something more akin to science fiction. Finally, in the fourth video the artist talks about how our view has been shaped by nuclear accidents—both real, like in the Simpsons cartoons, and real, like Three Mile Island.

He then goes on to show how there are different ways to broadcast a message. The message can be subtle, like in slide 55, or it can be in your face, like in slide 60.

Finally, the artist asks the students to begin their journey in creating their own nuclear art. He shows them slides 69-71 in which he tasks them with the following:

Start to collect images from online printouts, magazines, catalogs, instagram feeds, and photos.

Start looking for objects that may relate to your topic.

Just remember when collecting images and objects to think about who are you communicating with and how you want to communicate with them. What is the tone you want to take when you communicate with them?





25 minutes

Student Activity: Students spend time looking for images online that connect to their project, and they begin to think how they want to communicate their ideas.

One student was so inspired that she immediately went into Art brainstorm mode. These are just some early ideas that she had that she wanted to get down on paper.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I remind students to continue to think about images as they continue to conduct their nuclear power plant research, and if they see and image that is particularly meaningful to them, to print it or save it because it may be the basis for their art project.