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Using Math, Science, and Art to Illuminate Hidden Figures

Using Math, Science, and Art to Illuminate Hidden Figures

If you were asked to name an important scientist, who comes to mind? Einstein? Pasteur? Hawking? How about accomplished artists? Rembrandt, Degas and Monet are household names, and when it comes to changemakers and inventors, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and the Wright Brothers are instantly recognizable. While the contributions of these famous folks are unquestionably important, Wildwood’s 5th grade is shining a light on some lesser-known, but equally significant, individuals through the Illuminated Figures project. The brainchild of science teacher Anna Boucher, this year-long student study highlights innovators whose contributions may have been overlooked or in some cases erased due to various barriers such as gender and race. 

The Illuminated Figures project is a prime example of the progressive culture and project-based learning at Wildwood. It began as Anna played with the cross-curricular idea of using electrical circuitry to illuminate portraits created in Visual Arts. This literal “illumination” of drawings using conductive wire and LED bulbs morphed into the figurative, when Anna shared her idea with the other 5th grade teachers. 

“I wanted to elevate the recognition of some people that had done amazing things in science,” Anna said. Likewise, she discovered that teachers from other disciplines wanted to do the same with regard to unrecognized people in their fields. 

As classroom subject borders were broken, students selected their illuminated figures by browsing biographies in four categories: art, technology, science and math. To make the project meaningful, it was crucial to Anna that students developed a connection to their chosen figures. She turned toward librarian Jennifer Dubois, who recognized an opportunity to enhance and build Wildwood’s library with a diverse collection of biographies that mirrored the student body. 

“If we want our students to see themselves in our books, not just the fiction books and the pictures books, the biography section needs to be highlighted too,” Jennifer said.

As the project progressed throughout the year and across classrooms, Thursday morning Project Block time helped facilitate the breadth of work. 

According to assistant director of elementary Sarah Simon, the Project Block was designed to be “a really chunky, solid block of time that could not only be used for deep and extended student-driven learning, but also a space where teachers could collaborate and co-create, using our imaginations and thinking big together.” 

Visual Arts teachers Kendra Elstad and Michael Fujikawa used the Project Block to teach the Durer Grid, a drawing technique that students implemented to illustrate portraits of their Illuminated Figures. 

“For the 5th grader who decided to illuminate a scientist, engineer or mathematician,” said Kendra, “it was wonderful to see them motivated to apply the Durer’s grid technique to draw a realistic portrait of who they selected. As an educator, it opened my eyes to major contributors in the arts, sciences and math.”  

In addition to the art component, 5th graders worked with humanities teachers to create narrative non-fiction reports about each Illuminated Figure. In the Tec D.E.C., students learned that technology isn’t defined by the digital age. 

Math teachers  looked at how to incorporate numbers into a piece of writing and gave students the option to do a math-related survey or research project. Fifth grader James C. polled both students and teachers and learned only 5 percent of his sampling had heard of Joan Proctor, a zoologist and herpetologist from the early 20th century. He showed this data as a pie chart and bar graph and incorporated his findings into his narrative as supportive evidence that despite her accomplishments, Joan Proctor flew under the radar and was indeed a “hidden figure.” But, why?

Constant questioning of material was at the core of student research. Using analytical and critical thinking skills, 5th graders sought to answer the question of why their accomplished subjects did not gain greater recognition. Why is Mae Jemison less known than Neil Armstrong? What obstacles kept her in the shadows? Did being female or African American at a certain time period hinder success? Fifth grade teachers led their students to look at historical context in order to understand the systems that affected the lives of their Illuminated Figures. As a by-product of inquiry, students learned how to question a story from multiple perspectives, including time, place, culture, economy, and identity.

To cap off the project, 5th graders took on an activist role by brainstorming ways to spread the word and finally “illuminate” their subjects. Students and teachers discussed methods of spreading information and concluded that the easy accessibility of a website would be the most efficient way to share their findings with the public. In Technology, students worked on iPads uploading their data, research, art and writing to create their own individual sections on an Illuminated Figures website. The Illuminated Figures website will be accessible to the general public and function as another way of promoting until-now dimly lit and hidden figures. 

It’s this sense of pride and accomplishment that the project’s teachers hope students take with them into middle school next year and beyond.

“These are just little seeds being planted in their minds, and they’re going to go on to do great things,” said Jennifer. “They will be the creators, the tech people, the artists, the scientists of tomorrow.” 

In essence, they will become their own Illuminated Figures. 

By Dawn Urbont and Kerri O’Neill, Wildwood Parents

  • Winter 2020