Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Picture This: Using Photography to Teach Science, Math, and Writing

Learn how to turn a cardboard box, disposable cameras, and kids’ natural curiosity into an academically rich project-learning program.

July 30, 2008

Hands-on Experience:

Students used both animate and inanimate objects to make photograms, which taught them the scientific properties of light and how to create photographic images with it.

Credit: Courtesy of Heather Stumpf

Public school teachers aren't often presented with the opportunity to spend $15,000 to develop new extracurricular programs for inner-city kids. But that's just what happened last year to Liz Beck, a fifth-grade math, science, and social studies instructor at Chicago International Charter School, in Washington Park, on the city's south side.

Beck's sudden windfall came from a large public grant, which the charter school would lose unless it spent the money in time. The school charged Beck, known as a leader and innovator among her peers, with the task of creating a summer enrichment program.

As Beck brainstormed ideas for the program, she set out to accomplish three goals: stimulate students academically using hands-on activities, expose students to Chicago's diverse resources, and introduce students to career paths and professionals in their community. To do so, the project would include in-class projects, guest speakers, and field trips over the course of four weeks.

Beck also sought a theme that could bring all her ideas together -- and pique student interest. Ultimately, she chose photography. "There's something in nearly every subject that relates to photography, and it's a topic that appeals to kids," she explains.

Beck collaborated with five teachers in various disciplines to develop course materials. "The opportunity was an amazing chance to think about what's possible when we challenge ourselves to be creative in our classrooms," she says. Their curriculum integrated six content areas -- science, computer skills, geometry, writing, art, and career exploration -- into the study of traditional 35mm photography. Based on teacher recommendations, Beck invited twenty high-achieving, well-behaved kids in grades 5-7, and fifteen accepted the invitation to participate in the program, dubbed A Picture-Perfect Summer.

Although A Picture-Perfect Summer was necessarily extravagant, most of its project-learning lessons can be re-created as low-budget classroom activities during the school year. (Beck spent the bulk of her $15,000 budget on teacher salaries, film processing, and a few indulgences during field trips.) All teachers really need, she says, are a few disposable cameras, some basic supplies, and a few adult volunteers.

Start with the Basics

The premise of Beck's program is simple: Teach students about the science and art of photography, then help them apply their new knowledge in other subjects. So the first few lessons of A Picture-Perfect Summer were photocentric, dominated by conversations about basic optics and chemistry. How do 35mm cameras work? How does light travel, and why is it so important to photography? Just what goes on in those trays of liquid in the darkroom? Beck gave students a working vocabulary of terms such as foreground, background, shadow, light, focus, and flash.

Beck also recruited Heather Stumpf, a professional photographer and Art Resources in Teaching teacher, to present concepts such as light and shadow, and positive and negative space. "If you're not a professional photographer, this is a great opportunity to invite a member of the community into the classroom, as long as that person can explain concepts in age-appropriate terms," Beck explains.

Credit: Courtesy of Heather Stumpf
The DIY Darkroom: Students and instructors worked together to turn recycled refrigerator boxes, tape, red gel, safe light, and garbage bags into a working photo lab.

Stumpf and Beck led students in a project that everyone loved: building a darkroom. The adults sliced open two recycled refrigerator boxes donated by a local appliance store, and the students painted the interior black. Then the group taped the boxes together to create a light-tight space large enough for a couple of students and a teacher to stand inside. Near the top, they cut a small hole and covered it with red gel (available at photography-supply stores) to allow a small amount of "safe" light into the darkroom. For a door, they cut a hole in the side of the box and hung black garbage bags over it to keep the room dark.

Sixth grader Romanus explains, "We knew how a camera makes the image by allowing or blocking light through the lens and onto the chemicals on the film. So we had to be sure we didn't get any cracks of light in our darkroom."

Stumpf says students could develop black-and-white film inside the darkroom with the help of a photo-savvy teacher or a volunteer photography buff. But, for the sake of time, she asked students to make photograms instead. These images are created by placing objects onto photo-sensitive paper (also available at photography-supply stores) and then exposing the paper to the light by quickly turning a flashlight on and off. Students dunked the paper into trays of developer and stop bath and a fix solution to develop the images, then rinsed the pages in water and hung them up to dry. It takes about ten minutes to process a photogram from start to finish.

"It was cool, because we learned about opacity, translucence, and transparent objects," Romanus recalls. "It's like a negative. If light can't get through the object you use, it's all white on the paper. It looked like an X-ray."

Expand Content into New Areas

After being introduced to photography, A Picture-Perfect Summer's students received more diverse assignments that included art, math, and computers. Beck gave each student a thirty-six-exposure disposable camera with flash. The students spent three days a week in classes with different instructors and two days a week on field trips. In lieu of excursions, students can take photos around campus. "You can modify field trips, maybe by having a speaker come into the classroom, which we did too," Beck says. (See the sidebar for more field-trip alternatives.)

Credit: Courtesy of Heather Stumpf
The Shadow Effect: To better understand how light, or the absence of it, can change our perception, a student traces onto paper the outlines of objects illuminated from behind. The further the object was from the page, the more abstract it became.

For example, Stumpf led students in talks about photography as art. "It was pretty easy to get into discussions about the artistic elements of photography, because the kids knew there weren't any right or wrong answers," Beck says. Simple questions can spark lively dialogue: How does this picture make you feel? Why do you think the photographer took such a close shot? What would happen if he or she had zoomed out from the details?

Beck also invited a local sculptor to talk about how she uses photography to guide her work. During this class, each student created a sculpture from modeling clay and took a picture of it. "By the end of the program, the sculptures had melted, but the photos hadn't," Beck says. "We talked about how photos preserve moments in time."

After the photo-as-art conversation, Beck led a simple poetry workshop in which she gave students images and asked them to write poems about the photos. "They learn about images as a means to access their emotional cores," Beck explains. "It can be really powerful." Students also kept journals throughout the four-week program, in which they wrote reflections on their experiences each day.

For the conceptual activities, the teachers provided photos, but Beck emphasizes the importance of giving students a chance to take their own snapshots. "It's an activity they like, and they start thinking about what's happening in their cameras, how to compose a photo, how the photo will make people feel," she notes. "It links their learning together." To keep costs down, she suggests using disposable cameras -- ideally, one 400 ISO thirty-six-exposure model with flash per student, although small groups could share a single camera if necessary. Sharing a digital camera, a computer, and a printer would also work in a pinch.

Beck used the photographs students took of buildings during an architectural cruise down the Chicago River to teach math. (Photos of any building kids find interesting will do, she says.) Beck began the lesson with discussions about the geometric properties of the structures. She encouraged students to consider scale and proportion, which, she explains, "relate really well to photographic concepts of enlarging and reducing." From there, she branched into lessons about the concept of producing images to scale. Beck had students do grid drawings of their images, enlarging or reducing the images by specific amounts.

Students also learned that there are easier ways to manipulate images than grid paper and pencil. With the help of computer teacher Nitin Hemmady, students learned how to scan images so they could use Adobe Photoshop to alter them. (The goal of the computer work was to introduce students to technology they may not have used before.) Each student also created an animated sequence set to music. Sixth grader Romanus animated a man falling into a hole. "It was a taste of what real artists do with computers," he says. Beck suggests that other teachers might expand the classroom curriculum to include desktop publishing.

Involve the Community

Because Beck had $15,000 to spend, she made outside experiences a key part of A Picture-Perfect Summer. "The kids in our community often don't have exposure to bigger and better things," she notes. "I really wanted our kids to see that there is life beyond the four walls of a classroom, to teach them that there are jobs available that they find exciting."

Beck invited four speakers, one each week, to talk about their jobs and how they use photography at work. To find them, she posted a note on craigslist and found four professionals who met her criteria: the aforementioned sculptor, a graphic designer for the Chicago Cubs, a trial attorney, and a children's-book author.

Beck says she took care to make sure her guest speakers understood what students were studying. She set clear expectations and asked each professional to incorporate a relevant activity into his or her visit. For example, the attorney talked about how he uses pictures to build his cases. He then gave the students a scenario and asked them to choose the best photos to represent it. "I liked when the lawyer came to talk to us," says fifth grader Razia. "When you have photos, you can tell the truth from lies. And photos help you tell stories so people understand."

The children's-book author spoke about how she chooses pictures for her stories, then helped students write their own tales and select photos from magazines to complement their words. The graphic designer for the Chicago Cubs showed students how to turn a player's picture into a poster and how to make baseball cards. "What matters most is that the speakers can communicate clearly with the students, whatever their ages," Beck says. "Kids love new faces, new stories, new voices."

Beck also wanted to give students a chance to share their new knowledge with others. At the end of the program, they presented their work to parents, administrators, and fellow summer school students. They turned their many photos into scrapbooks, which they set up science-fair style for visitors to peruse. They opened their darkroom to guests and used trifold boards to explain several of the science concepts they'd learned. The crowning event was the first public viewing of the video clips Beck had taken during the four-week program with a disposable VHS video recorder. The photo team at the pharmacy where she bought the video camera edited the clips down to a three-minute video set to music.

Jeanine Hutchins, Romanus and Razia's mother, was thrilled by what she saw. "That's not anything a parent can teach a child if you're not into photography," she says. "It was a broadening experience for them, and we all just really appreciated the opportunity."

Beck is grateful for the experience, too. She says the program's format mattered less than the nature of the instruction. "You don't have to have a lot of money or a month in the summer to make most of this work," she says. In fact, Beck continues to use the photo-based math lessons in her regular classes. The results are the same: Students learn the core academics and experience the joys of discovery. "We want that spirit in our classrooms all the time," Beck notes, whether it's during a summer enrichment program or a Monday-afternoon geometry lesson.

Hilary Masell Oswald lives in Denver and writes about such diverse topics as urban education, health care policy, and trends in art and architecture.

Re-Creating the Experience, On Location or Off: Field Trips and Alternatives

Liz Beck used field trips to supplement her summer curriculum, but for teachers whose resources require them to stay put, she suggests classroom alternatives to her off-campus adventures. Here's a list of both types of experiences:

WGN-TV Station: Students watched a live taping of the morning news and toured the studios. The camera operators talked to them about how they compose different shots. The writers explained to students how they edit a story and use images to show viewers what the reporter is communicating.Alternative: Nearly every community has a local newsroom. If you can't go there, invite a spot-news reporter and a camera operator to campus. "Don't be afraid to ask for what you need from local groups," Beck says.

Museum of Surgical Science: Students learned about medical imaging, from the first rough X-rays to modern medical devices, such as MRI machines.Alternative: Call a local medical-imaging center and ask a radiologist to come talk to students about imaging and to bring samples.

A Culinary Tour: Students and teachers ate their way through downtown Chicago and up into Lincoln Park, a neighborhood that food lovers adore. They tasted foods from different cultures, photographed the dishes, and wrote reviews as if they were restaurant critics.Alternative: Invite a couple of local chefs to bring dishes to class and talk about the foods' history and cultural roots. Or set up a meal at a single restaurant within walking distance where the chef is willing to speak to the students. Ask students to taste, photograph, and write about their meals. Send their reviews to the restaurants as notes of thanks.

Architectural Cruise Along the Chicago River: Students learned the history of Chicago's architectural gems while floating down the river. They took photographs of buildings for use in math lessons.Alternative: Students take photos of any buildings they find interesting, on campus or off. Or teachers can provide images of some of the world's most famous structures to use in discussions of photo composition or the buildings' geometry and scale.

The Art Institute: Students noted the differences among various styles of art and talked about how artists use photography to inspire and inform their work.Alternative: Invite a local painter or sculptor to present his or her work to the class and to talk about the role of photography in its creation.

The Museum of Science and Industry: The students saw a crime-scene-investigation exhibit, which taught them about how investigators use photographs, X-rays, and other image-related technology to solve crimes.Alternative: Call your local police department and invite a detective to speak to the class on similar topics.

-- HMO

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