“When I create a lesson, I think of myself as the gutter bumpers in the bowling alley,” said Eric Landgraf, art teacher at Newport Heights Elementary as he described how he guides students with littleBits sculpture-building projects. “I’m not going to let the students get a gutter ball, but I’m not necessarily going to help them get a strike either even though I want them to. I’ll go around and ask ‘what if’ questions to lead them in a successful direction.”
This year Landgraf introduced fourth graders at Newport Heights to littleBits, which are modular electronics that snap together with magnets. They are easy to use and allow students to create unique inventions. Landgraf designed curriculum using littleBits three years ago when he was at Stevenson Elementary. The curriculum closely aligns with fourth grade science curriculum, making it a natural fit for all fourth graders and a way to enhance their learning through art.
“In science the fourth graders learn about circuitry and transformation of power from battery power to movement, and lighting up,” said Landgraf. “The littleBits curriculum reinforces and makes that connection stronger and more real for them.”
Using littleBits, students were tasked with creating a sculpture that moves, lights up and is interactive. Additionally it needed to incorporate a piece of artwork from a well known artist that Landgraf assigned. The two main goals for students during the lesson were working together as a group and learning how to solve problems creatively.
Students made a variety of different sculptures ranging from an oven with a revolving cake on top to spinning abstract circles.
Group members Gabbi Lanhaus, Toby Gonzalez, Camryn Lombardo and Steven Huang chose to create a sculpture of a dog.
“Mr. Landgraf told us we needed to have something that moves and something that lights up, so I thought of my dog,” said Lanhaus. “When he sees me when I come home his eyes are always so big and cute so I thought maybe we can have his eyes light up. Then he always wags his tail so I thought we could have the tail on our sculpture wag too.”
Deciding to model the project after Lanhaus’ dog was a group decision, as were design choices throughout the process. Group members talked through the options and worked through challenges together.
One challenge proved to be one of the best experiences of the project for Gonzalez.
“One of my favorite parts was when we had to figure out how to get the tail to move using the technology because I’ve always loved technology,” she said.
Teamwork was what enabled the group to be successful, according to the team members.
Lanhaus said her favorite part of the project was working with her team.
“I never would have been able to do this by myself,” she said.
The project is beneficial and exciting to both the students and Landgraf.
“What really inspires me about this project is seeing the students struggle a little, and then seeing their faces when they get it,” said Landgraf. “It’s real sincere gratification and enjoyment when they solve a problem.”
Landgraf has received a generous amount of support for his venture with the littleBits curriculum. Initially the unit was funded through grants. Then Landgraf reached out to the district’s STEM curriculum developer, Greg Bianchi who helped connect Landgraf with Bellevue Schools Foundation. The Foundation was excited about the program and chose to generously support it by helping purchase enough kits for eight schools.
In addition to teaching students about the curriculum, Landgraf has been leading professional development for other art teachers in the district to teach them about littleBits. He sees value in the curriculum because of the direct tie to technology.
“Technology is part of students’ daily lives and for a lot of them it will be their career,” he said. “It’s important for them to know that art uses technology. A lot of kids get discouraged in art because they can’t draw. I want them to know they don’t have to be really good at drawing to be an artist.”
Landgraf has been sharing his experience at the national level.
In March he presented at the National Art Education Association conference in New York. Each of the art teachers in attendance built their own sculpture using littleBits. At the end of June, he will travel to the International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio, Texas to continue sharing his experience.
“The response I got from other teachers at the conference in New York was empowering,” he said. “It was encouraging that other art teachers out there are interested and appreciate what we are doing in here in Bellevue.”