Bridging the gap between art and science

Students from two schools collaborate to create a new kind of art

For many, thoughts of school bring back memories of the traditional classroom experience: rows of desks, a chalkboard, separate subjects in separate classrooms with separate teachers. But what if the lines were blurred between the fields of science, art and math? Could that even happen, and what would it look like?

Synapse School, a private school in Menlo Park, and Connect Community Charter School, a charter school in Redwood City, have partnered to implement a project that does just that, and the result is a 52-foot-long modular installation that translates data from music into art.

Noa Mendelevitch, the director of innovation for visual arts and design at Synapse School, explained that the "Data Art Project" was an answer to the question of how to create projects that prepare students for the 21st century.

"We've transitioned over the past couple of decades from the age of information to the age of innovation, and it's no longer about what you know (because you can Google that), it's about what you can do with what you know," Mendelevitch said.

She said that because the arts tend to reflect the social norms and technology of the culture that creates it, Synapse chose to experiment with data art, a fairly new form.

"(Data art) really looks at data as a medium, which is so interesting because it helps really bridge the gap for our students in looking at the world as a whole and (having) this interdisciplinary approach where sciences are not separate from arts, and you really look at the intersection of things -- of all things," Mendelevitch said.

Another goal for the project was to exercise social-emotional skills in the project, a core value of Synapse School, which is a lab school for 6 Seconds, an international network that teaches social-emotional skills to both the business sector as well as coaches and educators. These skills would prove useful in the large-scale 300-person collaboration between the two schools.

Because Synapse School and Connect Community Charter School share many of the same educational beliefs and values, they have partnered for various projects. Furthermore, Synapse School has deliberately made this project public to other educators in the Bay Area, believing that this kind of curriculum should be shared.

"For us (at Connect Community Charter School), we're always looking to expose our students to different types of activities, different forms of education, and we have a great kinship with Synapse and their philosophical undertaking," said Alicia Yamashita, Connect Community Charter School's director.

The project itself started in September and wrapped up in April. The kick-off collaboration between both schools took place at Montalvo Arts Center, where students participated in musical team-building exercises. At Synapse, students from both schools worked with xylophones, body percussion and other instruments, with which each class composed its own music. The compositions were then recorded and digitized.

Once the the data was recorded, students analyzed the data files in an age-appropriate manner. Kindergarteners, for example, counted how many different kinds of beats there were in the music, while middle schoolers worked with sophisticated software to graph the music and take measurements.

"The challenge in this project was how do we synthesize -- come up with a system, to translate this data into form and color?" Mendelevitch said, adding that they practiced design thinking in the ideating, prototyping and testing of this conversion process.

They ended up with a color chart which formed the basis for translating the large of amounts of data into art. In total, all students ended up with qualitative, quantitative, individual, and class data, all of which is represented on each student's wooden panel, which makes up part of the display.

"There's lots of data, but visually, because the music has melody to it ... you'll see there's a coherence. There's the language of translation we developed that helps create unity and coherence, but also the music itself, by virtue of it being coherent, helped create a visually pleasing outcome," Mendelevitch said.

The 300, 4-foot-tall wooden panels are installed on a flexible, modular meta structure that resembles a bike chain. The installation will be on display as part of the Palo Alto Art Center's Youth Art Exhibit in May and at the Montalvo Art Center's Project Space Gallery as part of the Art on the Grounds festival in August.

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