Residency at Fallingwater Informs Engineering Curriculum

This past summer, along with 12 educators who are also Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts, I lived and worked at High Meadow, the home base for students of Fallingwater Institute’s summer residency programs in architecture, art, and design. High Meadow is located on a historic Pennsylvania farm adjacent to architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Fallingwater residence. During my stay, I worked on intensive, immersion inquiry drive projects related to architectural engineering construction and design.

In fact, we began our work as soon as everyone had checked in and was introduced. Our first assignment was a silent walk to Fallingwater, which offered an impressive first experience with the house. I had studied this house and its setting by reading journals and books for years. At the end of our walk through the moist and evergreen forest, there appeared an engineering masterpiece. We were allowed access to all areas of Fallingwater and took the hour to find a setting for our first line drawing. Using perspective, I drew distinct layers with a foreground, middle and backdrop, giving the drawing spatial presence.

That evening we returned to our sanctuary and settled into the open-air studio for orientation with our tools and materials. Without Wi-Fi, computers and 3D printing, how would anything be accomplished?

The first project, to make a Kirie (Japanese paper-cutting craft) from my line drawing, required that I cut an image into one piece of paper using an X-Acto knife. The work took time and patience, which I wasn’t used to spending in one setting. However, the work in itself proved a valuable learning process.

Project two examined organizational patterns used for building. With a parallel bar, triangle and charcoal pencil, I drew a coordinate plane into Bristol paper using precise measurements and symmetry. Next, I used the X-Acto knife to cut a repeating pattern through the material. I used bamboo skewers to fasten the paper into the shape of a cylinder. Then I wedged wooden toothpicks within each slice of the paper to hold the form of a vent. In this case, the vents reflected light from a bulb lit inside the cylinder and hung from the ceiling with one strand of twine.

Project three was a collaborative effort of designing and vaulting arches with brick and plaster. Each end of a piece of string was held on the top corners of a large cardboard square. We traced the parabola and cut out the guide for our arch. Next, one teammate mixed the plaster while two others simultaneously aligned and laid the bricks until the arch was set with the capstone.

Project four required another study of setting and scale modeling. Using our cumulative skills from the studio, we designed and built a 3D space with two uniquely joined walls. All specifications were to scale and met structural guidelines for regular construction jobs.

Project five sent the teachers back to the drawing board to create interdisciplinary unit plans with Fallingwater and engineering as inspirational themes. Sharing my story about visiting Fallingwater is one step to building authentic connections with my audience and the lesson objective.

The cohort was guided by award-winning architect Andrew Phillips and New York Times best-selling author Siobhan Vivian. Residents, who came from all over the United States and the United Kingdom, shared their diverse experience in art, math, museum, science and college teacher education. Would you imagine how much can be learned and shared when there are no TV, Internet, Wi-Fi or computers drawing your eyes and ears to push notifications?

My experience has already transformed engineering curriculum and practice in our third-grade engineering design project. Following consultation with Cooper Hewitt Museum and MASS, a Boston-based architecture design firm, we are working on a challenge to redesign Ms. Kehoe’s classroom for improved learning. (MASS, by the way, began in 2008 during the design and building of the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, a project of Partners In Health and the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Since then, MASS has expanded to work in over a dozen countries in Africa and the Americas.)

By Anderson Harp, Computer Science & Engineering Department Chair