Design Lab: Moving Forward


It was a day for clamps.

Basically, any time that I had as much as 15 minutes free today, I was in the design lab working with glue, clamps, and screws.  It went something like this:

  • Go into the lab.
  • Glue a pair of pieces together.
  • Clamp them.
  • Go away and teach a class.
  • Return to the design lab. Screw the glued pieces together for added strength.
  • Remove clamps.  Glue another pair of pieces together.
  • Attach just-unclamped piece to the rolling cart (shown at left).

By 3:45 pm, I was attaching the wheels.  At that point, a student wandered by who had worked on the lanterns.  Remember those lanterns? He helped build the internal support system that carries the LED candle system inside of it.  I asked him if he had 15 minutes.  He did.  He finished assembling the lanterns, while I figured out how to attach the wheels to the lab cart.

ProjectsThen I asked him, as he finished the lantern work, if he had 15 more minutes.  He did.  I put him to work screwing together the last bits and pieces of the design lab’s new rolling cart.  I let him sign it, too, and I signed it as well with today’s date (I should have given our Spanish teacher the chance to sign it too; he helped, as did our facilities manager).   Done.

I want to take a moment to point out how extraordinary this is.  I promised myself that I would never put power tools into the hands of students — too dangerous. And yet, after weeks and months of working with a drill, I understand the genuine benefits of working with power tools. I’ve injured myself with them, although not seriously. And, when I consider the risks and benefits, it’s clear that utility knives and exacto knives carry more risk than a power drill — the cuts are more immediate, there’s more risk of infection, the cuts are deeper, and, most importantly, your hands are right next to the cutting surface. As opposed to drills, or drills with screwdriver attachments as this was, when they should be well back from the twisting bit.

So while I didn’t trust the student with the power circular saw — who would? — I had seen this kid in action for long enough, with enough hours of practice, that it made perfect sense to trust him with the drill under the circumstances. And so I did.  And I let him finish my cart.  Mine.  Except it’s not mine. It’s the school’s.  It belongs to a community.  And this kid now has ownership of it in a way that will be important, moving forward.  He wants this, and he’s good at it.  Time to teach him.

ProjectsAnd then we turned our attention to the head.

We’re building a wizard head puppet for our spring musical, The Wizard of Oz.  An instructable from was our starting point.  We used their design as a starting place for a frame… and quickly ran out of budget for it.  I’m starting to understand the problem of design cost overruns. When you’re building something you’ve never built before, not only do you have to run backwards from your wrong-headed original ideas, it’s also the case that you go places you didn’t know you shouldn’t go when you’re following other people.

Anyway, I put my student assistant to work.

He’d never sewn before.  So there were quick lessons on sewing.  Nothing fancy: how to sew on a patch, and how to use strong thread to create the “pullbacks” I needed in the skin of the head.  We pinned the upper lip in place, and then sewed on patches, and created two pullbacks from the ‘skin’ of the puppet to the frame, which created the ‘sockets’ that will become the eyes. This had the advantage of making two lovely ridges above the eyes, which will serve as overhangs for the eyebrows. Brilliant.

If you look at the photo at left, you can see my student through the muslin cloth that is the ‘skin’ of this puppet.  The patch for the right eye is just a little bit above his head.  The whole puppet is maybe twice as tall as he is.  The jaw and mouth moves, and it’s filled with black teeth carved out of foam (I think we’re going to have to paint them white, just so the face is recognizably a face).

ProjectsIt’s going to be scary.

I am, of course, terrified that he won’t be done on time.  I have a couple of half-spheres of styofoam which are going to become his eyes; and some foam-fabric which will become his eyelids.  I’m wondering if I can create a frame of dowels that can be his eye-manipulators; or a pair of LED lamps to make his eyes glow terrible and green.  I’m not sure I have time; the show is weekend after next, and the puppet has to be finished for tech week, which starts Monday.

My Lady calls this time of year “the Quickening”, and I don’t disagree.  The number of projects I’m involved in trying to complete is growing longer and crazier by the day; and while it’s nice to have the rolling cart complete, and the wizard head closer to complete, it’s also the case that a huge shipment of lumber was delivered to the Design Lab this very afternoon — the lumber which will become the last (and key) piece of equipment for our new Maker Space — the workbench.

How long have I wanted to have a workbench: for carpentry, for electronics, for small types of metalwork, for students to feel like they could do genuine WORK at — instead of every leftover and unwanted piece of furniture in the school.  And now, I’m maybe three weeks away from having that workbench, and indeed, a whole workshop, for that very thing.

But first, there’s this elaborate array of projects to complete.  I suddenly feel like the principal pilot in an early-mid-eighties anime show, announcing loudly to the powers of the Universe, “And I’ll form the head!”

I have formed the head. But the body, and the heart, and the soul, come from the students, the parents, my colleagues, and the egregore of the school.  Without the help of my student assistant today, and a group of parents on Monday doing similar labor, so much would have not been finished; so much left incomplete. With their help I am more powerful than without it.

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  1. […] For about a half-hour today during Activity Block, the middle school moved the lab.  First, we shifted the conference room furniture out of the old conference room, and into the new conference room (which is also the old lab).  Then, they formed a fireman’s carry brigade line.  We handed things to kids on one end of the line in the old design lab, and they slid into the new Design Lab just down the hall.  Once the stuff was moved, they moved the furniture that we’ve been building for the Lab over the last few weeks: the two sawhorses, the four tables, the three sections of the work bench, and the rolling cart. […]

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