In her art/sci profile, Santina Protopapa, founder and executive director of Progressive Arts Alliance (PAA), remarks that Case Western Reserve “continues to be an important resource in my current endeavors.” One of her favorite examples is her organization’s partnership with think[box], the university’s center for innovation and tinkering.
Founded in 2012, think[box] is a lab where innovators from the university and the larger community can design, fabricate and test new devices and engage in creative endeavors. It is equipped with 3-D printers and scanners, laser cutters, printed circuit board routers and an array of other high-tech equipment. Currently housed in the Glennan Building, think[box] will eventually occupy a seven-story, 50,000-square-foot campus facility (the former Lincoln Storage Building). The first phase of renovations is currently underway, and this August the lab will move into the first three-and-a-half floors of the newly renamed Richey-Mixon Building at the Case School of Engineering.
PAA’s artist-educators have devised several ambitious projects for Cleveland schoolchildren with assistance from think[box]. For example, fourth graders at Mound STEM School learned about electricity by building a 10-foot-arch that glows with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Children at Michael R. White STEM School helped assemble an enormous geometric installation made up of 3,280 posterboard triangles, all produced at think[box], which the students fastened together into Platonic solids.
Artists Ainsley Buckner and Marcus Brathwaite used several think[box] resources to develop the LED arch. For instance, they produced custom-made circuit boards with labeling that showed the students where to solder the wiring for each bulb. They had the children make drawings by hand to decorate the sculpture; then, at think[box], they scanned each drawing, sent the digitized image to the laser cutter and lightly etched the image onto a piece of mylar—the translucent, papery material that eventually covered the arch.
Yet Brathwaite, who is also a think[box] staff member, points out that technology isn’t all the facility has to offer. “This is an open space where an artist can run into an engineer and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem to solve. Can you help me?’” Brathwaite explains. “It’s a place where that sort of serendipitous interaction with people happens all the time. That’s probably the hugest asset that think[box] provides.”
Both the LED arch and the geometric mural are modular projects; in each case, the whole is made of single units (a box with a diode inside, an equilateral triangle) replicated many times over. And both were designed to engage students in collaboration. “I want the children to experience what it means to have everyone participate in a thing in order for it to be successful,” Brathwaite says.
Jared Akerstrom, the lead artist on the mural at Michael R. White, feels the same way. During a family night at the school, parents and grandparents as well as children pitched in to combine thousands of triangles into polyhedrons. While prototyping the triangles at think[box], Akenstrom had figured out a way to attach tiny hooks that would make the job easier and ensure that the Platonic solids stayed intact.
The mural has provided material for lessons in multiplication as well as geometry. In addition, Akerstrom says, it has introduced students to abstract art. The piece reminds some viewers of connections in the brain, while others see it as a representation of community: “This is what is possible when we work together.”
“Part of what I love about PAA is the depth of the projects that its artists dream up,” says Ian Charnas, manager of think[box]. “The projects I’ve seen come through are large-scale, collaborative sculptures and other art pieces, through which students are enjoying working with art but also learning bits of math and science along the way.”