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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

4 October 2022

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Stage one: presentation

JCU Associate Professor Robyn Glade-Wright is well-known for her striking art installations that portray the urgency of climate action. When she gave a presentation at JCU’s Inspiration on Tap in 2019, a Trinity Bay State High School teacher, Kelly Soenario, was in the crowd. Seeing how Robyn’s creativity and innovation could lead to highlighting such an important issue, Kelly was inspired to bring a new combination of creativity, education and inspiration into the school.

Kelly, known as Ms Soenario to her students, decided to attend Robyn’s Inspiration on Tap presentation because her students at Trinity Bay   were learning about microplastics at the time. Robyn’s presentation focused on using art to portray the damage that microplastics have on marine life and oceanic environments. Robyn has been passionately learning about, teaching about, and creating art in response to this topic for several years.

“Around 2006, I learned that 150 species were being lost to extinction each day,” Robyn says. “And when I heard that, I couldn’t breathe for a few minutes, because 100 seemed like an inordinate number. And since that time, 15 years ago, just imagine how many plant and animal species we’ve lost.”

Robyn did her PhD on extinct Tasmanian plants, and since completing it, she has been exploring ways of communicating her concern about the extreme cost of environmental pollution. She aims to do so in ways that encourage people to make a difference in their community and environment, particularly through her art.

“I see my art as trigger objects, in a sense,” Robyn says. “They are an initial spark. People can view them in their own way and in their own time, and consider new perspectives without someone else telling them what they should think.”

This key idea of using art to convey the urgency of climate and environmental issues is what Kelly wanted to present to her students to encourage their own “spark” moment.

The reef art installation lit up at the Curiocity Festival

Stages two and three: inspiration and education

At the time of Robyn’s presentation, Kelly’s students were not only learning about microplastics, but had also visited JCU’s Orpheus Island Research Station, where they saw first-hand how microplastics impact the environment. As Kelly listened to Robyn’s presentation, she discovered the next step for her class to take.

“Robyn’s presentation was very inspiring and I thought we could do something similar to her artwork,” Kelly says. “I chatted with her at the end of her presentation, asking her about how she created the art, what materials she used, and what her process was. The more I spoke with her, the more I realised that this was something that could happen in the school space.”

Upon returning to school at the beginning of 2020, Kelly created a proposal for a project that combined Science, Technology, Art and Mathematics  and included several classes and teachers. The aim was to engage students in raising awareness about the harmful impacts of microplastics. The first step was to have Kelly’s Earth and Environmental Science  students collect plastic bottles for the art piece. However, when COVID-19 restrictions came into place in March, the project was put on hold.

A few months later, Kelly made a video to inform staff and students  that as they returned to in-person classes, the students would begin collecting plastics bottles. But the project began to change when Kelly accepted a new role with the Department of Education as the Regional STEM Champion.

“When I left , Stephanie Lawther became the school’s STEAM champion  and chose to continue the project with the art teachers ,” Kelly says. “The project became a collaboration between the technologies and visual arts teachers working together with the students, who were in the grade eight and nine STEAM class.”

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. In this project, not only was Trinity Bay High School’s STEAM champion leading the project, but Heads of Departments and teachers from those individual subject areas  were involved as well, including Caroline Mudge, Janelle Williams, and Steve Johnson.

“Although the project didn’t go exactly the way it was originally proposed, it still happened, and it still had people collaborating to make it happen, which was the most important thing to me,” Kelly says. “That’s really what the project was about: raising awareness about microplastics through educating and involving students, teachers, different departments of the school, and community members.”

With such widespread collaboration, both the students and the teachers were learning as they worked together on the project. The students were learning from the science, technologies art and mathematics areas in the one project, while the teachers learnt from each other and from industry professionals that supported them.

Staff and students from Trinity Bay High School at the Brisbane Festival
A profile view of the reef art installation
Left: Staff and students from Trinity Bay High School at the Brisbane Curiocity Festival. Right: A side view of the reef art installation onsite in Brisbane. Supplied by Trinity Bay State High School.

Stage four: Creation

Everyone involved in the project played an important role in the creation of the artwork. Teachers led the design elements and incorporated educational opportunities, while students collected materials and excitedly gave ideas for how to improve the piece’s overall effects. It wasn’t long until other community members got involved, too.

“The art teachers and the technology teachers got creative and wanted to code the installation to include sensors and have features on the installation spin when people walk past,” Kelly says. “There were parents who came in with experience as electricians and helped wire the installation. And the art teachers wanted to be able to support their students with the coding,  so they learned how to code, too!”

Even though Kelly wasn’t there to continue the project, the inspiration that she had wanted to bring into the school caught and spread like creative wildfire.

“This whole project went to a whole other level that I had never envisioned!”

Ms Kelly Soenario,  Regional STEM Champion, Department of Education

“For me it was an installation made out of plastic bottles that would sit in the new STEAM building at Trinity Bay High School, but when the teachers started collaborating with each other, and with the students, and then the parents and industry professionals as well,  it became more than I had imagined it could be.”

As the project continued to expand — both the artwork and the team behind it — students wanted to extend the creative learning experience and initiated working on the piece as a lunchtime activity.

“I got to visit once while the students were working in the maker spaces and at one table there were kids coding and at another table they were soldering with big magnifying glasses and tiny circuit boards,” Kelly says. “Over at a different table they had those great big water bottles that you see in gyms and offices as well as a mountain of small water bottles. And these kids were getting into them with drills and melting them and cutting them and doing all of that fun, hands-on work. Then you’ve got students and teachers working with industry professionals  in another spot testing the motors for the spinning pieces.

“I was talking to some of the kids who were coding and they said that what they really liked was that they can move to whichever space they wanted to. If they got stuck or bored while coding, they could go over and do some drilling for a while. They had the freedom to choose what they wanted to learn and do.”

The organic growth and collaboration of the artwork’s creation had been Kelly’s main goal when she first proposed the project, and to see it happen even as she was away from it, has been a rewarding experience.

“When I went back and read that original proposal, it’s clear that collaboration had always been the intention of the project,” she says. “There was a line in it that said one main goal was ‘to involve as many people in the community as possible’. And that’s exactly what they did.”

Students of Trinity Bay High School with their art installation
A close up view of the reef art installation
Left: The four students chosen to visit the Curiocity Festival. Right: A close-up of the reef art installation in Brisbane. Supplied by Trinity Bay State High School.

Stage five: Reception

The spark for this entire project was the inspiration that Kelly felt hearing Robyn Glade-Wright speak and seeing her artwork. Kelly interwove her proposal with that strong inspiration because the reception of a piece is nearly as important as the process of its creation. When the STEAM champion and other teachers at Trinity Bay High School came across a unique opportunity to showcase their students’ work, they knew they had to take it.

Each year, Brisbane hosts a 17-day celebration of science, art and tech by featuring interactive and digital installations along a 6.5km circuit through the City Botanic Gardens, South Bank, Cultural Precinct and the Brisbane CBD. This festival, Curiocity Brisbane, was the perfect opportunity to not only showcase the team’s artwork, but to give the students increased learning opportunities.

“The teachers first got in touch with the Curiocity festival because the students wanted to learn how to code and solder and a few other things, and Curiocity sent out advertisements to schools about providing industry professionals to visit schools and teach students how to do those sorts of things,” Kelly says.

As one of the state school winners of the Curiocity festival, the school was provided with industry professionals to help them prepare their project to be displayed on site at the festival.

Part of the students’ assessment was to submit a design for a piece that could sit beside their installation. Their teachers used this component to choose four students to fly to Brisbane and visit the festival. “The students that went were super excited,” Kelly says. “You could tell that they knew they were a part of something big.”

The installation was featured in the State School section of the Curiocity Festival at South Bank, Brisbane from March 12 to March 28 before being   flown back to Cairns to sit in Trinity Bay High School’s STEM building in all its glory.

Stage six: Impact

Reflecting on the lifespan of this project, Kelly is amazed by how it grew as well as the impact that it had on her former students and colleagues, on their families, and on herself. The experience showed her, and all of those involved in the project, the power of inspiration.

Inspiration begins within a moment of presentation, of experiencing something that you connect with and that you carry with you even after that moment has gone. The moment of presentation — whether it’s being presented with a new idea, or witnessing an event, or seeing an artwork — creates inspiration that leads to an action, a desire to dive into that inspiration through learning about that topic. This effort of education, be it learning by yourself or teaching others, leads to creativity.

Creativity, or creation, is followed by reception. When we are inspired, when we are passionate, we want to share that with others. We want someone else to have that moment of presentation and inspiration that we had. When we make opportunities for reception, we make opportunities for impact. And those moments of impact for us are moments of inspiration for others.

Presentation > Inspiration > Education > Creation > Reception > Impact

This is the lifecycle of inspiration, something that Robyn and Kelly have experienced and have passionately worked to ‘pay it forward’.

“There are cycles of inspiration happening all the time,” Kelly says. “That’s what teaching and learning and discovery are all about. That’s what we try to do in schools or at uni — we’re trying to inspire our students and our colleagues and people in the community. When we’re sharing and presenting what we’re passionate about, there’s new inspiration that comes out of that. And new creativity as well. Because after you’ve done it once, you’re excited for the next thing that you can get passionate about and learn about and create ideas for.”

Kelly says that Trinity Bay High School has been impacted by this project in lasting ways. “They have a musical coming up and the art teachers have learned how to do coding and they have now experienced the benefits of working collaboratively across subject areas. So they’re inspired to transfer those skills into a new project, like having LED lights  incorporated into the costumes for the musical.”

This impact of inspiration is exactly what Robyn has worked to teach for the length of her career. “It’s really about stewardship,” Robyn says. “We are constantly learning, constantly gaining new ideas and knowledge and information. Whether we go to a museum and are inspired by an artwork or we hear about the harmful impacts we’re having on our world, we are faced with a duty to respond. We must steward our ideas and our inspiration so that the people around us can learn and be inspired, and be empowered to pursue their inspiration as creatively as they can.”

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