I’m in Day 12 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.
I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.
Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor. (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!)
Reason for the Project:
Ok, once again, this one doesn’t really have much to do with school, except that a parent sent me this cool article about a sixth grader who developed a plan to create a microbrewery on board the International Space Station. That’s awesome. But mostly this project had to do with continuing my Druidic studies. One of the goals for the Bardic grade is to create four alchemical tinctures from a list of sixteen acceptable ones, and learn what can be learned from them. The answer is quite a lot, but it’s hard to know how much is relevant to schools.
From one perspective, this is what STEM really ought to look like:
- Here’s a quartet of chemical processes:
- dissolving the essential oils in a plant with alcohol
- reducing the remaining herbal material to ashes with fire
- recombining the two and observing the resulting mixture
- filtering out the remaining ash/residue and observing the resulting mixture
- Let’s follow these four steps with eight or ten plants in a school over the course of a year, while
- we will also study what we’ve learned about chemistry in the last 400 years since this was common methodology
Kids would learn some genuinely basic chemistry, like 400-year-old experimental chemistry, rather than learning about atoms and molecules and covalent bonds and so on. Instead, they’d learn to think like a chemist thinks, how a pharmacist thinks, how a researcher thinks. They’d learn the creative processes necessary to formulate new inventions. And they’d have to develop a basic curiosity about plants — because if they didn’t, they’d accidentally spagyric-ize poison ivy instead of something useful. So we’d be teaching botany in chemistry class, and chemistry in botany class, and scientific method in an entirely new way.
But no, we’re not likely going to do that. And we’re right not to. I mean, mixing teenagers with flammable and drinkable alcohol is a bad idea, first of all; and second of all, this requires a degree of artistry and acceptance of results quite apart from the question of what grade will I get? At the end of the alchemical process, your stuff is right, or it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, you learn how to fix it or you throw it away. If it’s right, good going and nicely done and on to the next .
From another perspective, though, is this really a THIRTY DAYS OF MAKING PROJECT? I mean, this project has been underway for a month, but my part of it consists mostly of shaking a jar every day, twice a day, for more than a month; and occasionally decanting the results through a coffee filter. It’s done today, and I happened to have time to do it. But it’s not a NEW project.
Oh, well. Sometimes we’re finishing things rather than starting them, or seeing them through beginning to end in one sitting. That’s the way it goes.
I happend to come into possession recently of a borosilicate glass beaker, which I’ve been using to assess the filtration process at the end of each of my spagyric mixtures. Today’s was particularly fine. Here was the starting setup. As you can see, the ashes in the cohobation tank at left have rendered the liquid very nearly black. It’s completely opaque.
But the filtration system setup is pretty complete. There are two coffee filters capturing the fine particles of dust or ash that are saturated with dill-laced essential oils. The first filter tends to capture the big particles; the second captures the tiny stuff. It’s not an ideal system. I have a second dill (weed) spagyric which never really quite filtered properly. It’s still basically a black mess, and I don’t know what to do to fix it. This one looked to turn out OK, though. It’s got this weird color — I call it “sick, dehydrated person’s urine” but you could come up with other names.
One the other hand, the smell is amazing. It has scents of earth and of richness, and it’s energizing. It also works marvelously well on the digestive system — as a medicine, dill is supposed to be a stimulant, and to keep the GI tract in working order, particularly the stomach. I happened to get some on my fingers, and tasted it. Spicy, a hint of dill or pickle taste: and within an hour I felt all kinds of energized and ahem, clean inside.
That process of clean filtration continued all the way to the end of the process. By that point, some of the particles of ash/residue in the jar had cut through part of the filter. I had a leak from the filter into the bag, and I had to do the whole batch over again. Argh. But I’d say that even after another couple of filters and a new cleaned beaker, all went basically according to plan. Take a look — the liquid coming out of the cohobation jar on the top left is almost black. And the liquid coming out of the filter is perfect. It rarely looks better than this, I think.
Reflection on My Learning
This is my fourteenth or fifteenth time through the spaygrics process, so I’m getting pretty good at it. But I still have a hard time estimating how many jars I’m going to need to fill up in order to contain the finished product. I guessed two big bottles and two smaller bottles. It wound up being four bottles — at least in part because the filtration went so smoothly this time around.
Oh, yeah. I also think I learned that I really need to work on packaging for these. Not just because it’s annoying to have to write out six labels for six jars, and six jars is annoying anyway — who am I going to give bottles of a spagyric tincture to? And who would want such a thing? It’s not like these things are all that useful.
Reflection on Learning in General
I don’t think that I can count any more spagyrics as part of the Thirty Days of Making, because this one went so very smoothly. I think I’ve … not mastered the process, exactly, but I’m not a newbie at it any more. I know how to make the process work; I know when I’ve done something stupid that I’ll have to correct for later; and I know when I’ve screwed up to the point that I should pour out the experiment in the garden and try again later (the nice thing about spagyrics is that most of the waste is compostable or recyclable — although I think the guy who works at the liquor store thinks I’m crazy).
From the point of view of modern-day students, though — this process is totally doable by modern-day children. They shouldn’t, because it’s illegal for them to handle high-proof alcohol, of course. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t learn to do it, or that the technology (and probably the equipment to do it) isn’t in their houses at home. Which raises again the question of what is the added-value experience of school? I mean, sure, we expect kids’ parents to go off to work and earn a living there so that the kids have food on the table and a roof over their heads (and add that most parents don’t know how to do spagyrics these days, and of course that’s not a problem, but it does make me wonder about lost knowledge and its value to modern society as a teaching tool and a learning tool).
two out of five stars. I feel like a bit of a cheat, doing a project I was going to do anyway today as my Thirty Days of Making, but it’s not a complete failure. And it is one of the requirements toward one of my non-school learning endeavors, namely earning the rank of Bard in the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn. And it did help me generate a few ideas about STEM teaching these days, even if those ideas won’t really pan out in the immediate term for my school or any other school.