COE Science Education professor Chris Schnittka engages art community in “Studio Saturdays”

August 25, 2021

Christine Schnittka showing pottery to onlookersThis summer, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art on the Auburn University campus has been hosting an exhibition titled “Crafting America.” The exhibit, organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, features works in ceramics, fiber, wood, metal, glass, and other unexpected materials. It presents a diverse story of American craft from the 1940s to the present.

Supported in part by a City of Auburn K12 Arts Education Grant, “Studio Saturdays” has featured COE Science Education professor Christine Schnittka, Ph.D. In these drop-in sessions which are free and open to the public, Schnittka, who in addition to her academic training as a scientist and engineer is an artist working in watercolors and other media, has offered demonstrations and hands-on projects to explore science and engineering in traditional crafts. Her students in Science Education have also been part of the crafting sessions, gaining real-world experience as informal science educators.

“The Crafting America exhibit carries the theme of celebrating craft and underrepresented people making those crafts,” Schnittka said. “My current area of interest is the intersection of science and traditional crafts. So, I proposed a series of Saturday workshops for the public, including both kids and adults, on that topic.”

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood “Home of the Brave,” 2013 Wire, silk, fabric, safety pins, and synthetic and natural threads 72 x 99 in. Courtesy of the artist © Consuelo Jimenez Underwood; photograph by Michael Tropea

There have been two programs in the series so far. A recent pottery workshop attracted 40 men, women, teens, and school-aged children who participated in sessions where they created objects and learned the techniques but also learned about the science of clay.

“I had my students help as assistants, as I do every week,” she said. “Our next workshop was on ecoprinting. Participants selected leaves and flowers and natural dyes, and hammered them into fabric and learned all about the chemistry of those pigments.”

Nick Cave “Soundsuit,” 2009 Fabric with appliquéd crochet and buttons, knitted yarn, and metal armature 97 x 26 x 20 in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2010.59 Photography by Edward C. Robison III

The final workshop, which will be held on Saturday, August 28, will focus on weaving with an emphasis on the scientific properties of woven materials and the technological applications they have. All participants will be making looms and weaving unusual materials with them from 10 a.m. to noon in the museum atrium.

Christy Barlow, the museum’s school and community programs senior manager, said the workshops have been a huge hit.

“Studio Saturdays have offered visitors new insights on the science behind familiar and unfamiliar art materials,” Barlow said. “Knowledge of both subjects enhance enjoyment and learning. Our aim has been to build upon this partnership with the College of Education and other academic departments through a variety of channels, including K12 educator workshops, university class visits and more community engagements. Our turnout has been fantastic and we very much appreciate our university partnerships and the inspirational work of people like Chris Schnittka.”

In her professional life in the College of Education, Schnittka develops and researches design-based curriculum units for elementary and middle school youth, targeting key science concepts through a maker lens. Her curricula have been used by teachers in more than 33 states and 13 countries. As indicated above, she is currently investigating the science and engineering embedded in traditional crafts, hoping to turn her findings into more curricula for elementary and middle school teachers to use.

Sabrina Gschwandtner Hands at Work Film, 2016 16mm polyester film, cotton-wrapped polyester thread, lithography ink 68 1/8 x 45 in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the 2020 Decorative Arts and Design Acquisitions Committee (DA²) in memory of Peter Loughrey © Sabrina Gschwandtner, courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery Photography © Joshua White – JWPictures.com

Dr. Schnittka is a former middle school science teacher and has been teaching elementary and secondary science education for 12 years. She has published her work in journals such as the International Journal of Science Education, The International Journal of Engineering Education, Advances in Engineering Education, Science & Children, The Science Teacher, and Science Scope. She teaches science methods, educational technology, and assessment courses. A creative polymath, she likes to spend her free time with her knitting needles in one hand and clay in the other.

The museum’s revamped department of education, engagement and learning welcomes student and faculty collaboration. To get involved, contact jcsm@auburn.edu or call 334.844.1484. Admission to The Jule is free. “Crafting America” is on view through Sunday, Sept. 12.