18th Century Buildings, Vector Drawing, History, and Math


by Heather Pang -

Sometimes a technology skill building activity takes on a life of its own, and this time a simple inkscape tracing project turned into a collaboration with math and a spring board for several related activities.

Last year students reported on surveys that one of the most challenging parts of their end of they year project in my 8th grade US history class was using the free vector drawing program, Inkscape, to translate what they designed into cuts on the laser cutter.  We had practiced once before the big project, but they said if they had done it a bit more they would have felt more comfortable when it came to designing their own work. (The end of the year project is to design a monument to a 20th century American woman, I have written about it here. http://bournidealab.blogspot.com/2013/05/design-monument-8th-grade-history.html)

So I designed a project where each pair of students had to trace an image of a building from Colonial Williamsburg to create a 2d model. I worked with the math teacher to decide on a scale, so all the buildings could be compared when we were done. We gave the students one of the real dimensions from the building, and they had to work out the scale for their final wooden building.

Our lab director, Angi Chau, wrote an instructable for downloading and installing Inkscape on a mac, and she also included a helpful template set up for our laser cutter. http://www.instructables.com/id/Installing-and-Setting-Up-Inkscape-for-laser-cutti/

It took longer than I had hoped, (4 class periods rather than 2-3) but the students did an amazing job. They replicated not just the exterior shape of the buildings, but the details of 18th century architecture as well. I had first thought we would cut the buildings out of cardboard, but as I saw what they were drawing I decided it was worth it to take the extra time to cut out of wood.

We took the buildings back to the classroom, and they were the backdrop for several discussions about architecture, the technology for glass making at the time (many small windows!) and some interesting questions about the difference between public buildings, such as the Courthouse, and private buildings, such as the William Randolph House.

The math teacher loved the project, and so she created the next extension. We take the 8th grade class to visit Colonial Williamsburg as part of their Washington DC trip, and so she designed several measurement activities to go with the scale and drawing project. While we were in Williamsburg, they had to take a photo of themselves standing in front of the building, and work out some of the measurements from that photo. Many of the students remarked at the small size of many of the buildings. Even an important public building like the Courthouse was, to them, rather small.

The students reflected that while the details of using Inkscape were challenging, they like the way the project turned out, and they feel more confident with the tools.

The next step will be doing the project again, this time each student working alone, and using early 20th century buildings for comparison. I will be doing that with the 8th grade in February or March this year.