Sunday, December 6, 2015

Past Wisdom + Future Possibilities

Silhouette.pngAll ninth graders at Penn Charter take a study skills class in the beginning of the year to be able to use their laptop for school, do advanced research, and stay organized -- essential skills for navigating their step-up to meet the increased rigor of high school. I teach technology skills by assigning projects students complete to show me they are able to do the kinds of things teachers will ask them to do with their laptops in 9th-12th grade classes. They learn key skills completing their projects.
We start with the basics. I assign small projects to make sure students can access their school accounts and post assignments online. Since teachers are assigning creative work that requires students to take and edit pictures, I needed a new project to introduce those tools and move students beyond the basics. Some summer work with the school’s new IdeaLab laser cutter sparked an idea.

Experimenting with the equipment, it became clear that most projects would take too long for the whole grade to complete, but each student could laser cut a simple face outline from wood. Before the campfire-like sweet scent of laser’d wood drifted from freshly cut project samples, the outline tests reminded me of something from Quaker history...silhouettes.

While traditional portraits were seen as expressions of vanity emphasizing a person’s looks and social status over their spirit and equality with others, Quakers in the 18th and 19th centuries turned away from paintings towards simple silhouette profile cut-outs as inexpensive ways to regard loved ones. In a way, the use of paper silhouettes hundreds of years ago mirrors online social networking practices of today. Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library puts it like this...
“[Quaker] Silhouettes were given or exchanged to further cement social relationships, similarly to the action of “friending” someone on Facebook today. Some silhouettes were mounted and framed; others were simply slipped into the family Bible or another favorite book. Interestingly, the majority of silhouette albums produced in Philadelphia were created by Quakers seeking to literally bind their community together.”

When the school year started, students in the Class of 2019 used their laptop cameras to take a profile picture of themselves and do a multi-step process using Pixlr -- a powerful, cloud-based image editing tool -- to turn their profiles into a simple silhouette. 

While silhouettes looked out of the past, they were perfect modern material for the high-tech vector tracing capabilities of a software package called inkscape. The software turned the contours of the faces into the mathematical line descriptions needed to direct the cutting beam of our new Full Spectrum CO2 Laser Cutter.

Students learned some important ways to use their school laptop for class projects, got a look into the future of computer controlled fabrication, and learned a little bit about our Quaker past, all in one project. The wood likenesses are heading home to be shared with loved-ones.

Michael Moulton
edTech Director

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