Tucked away in an unassuming room of Shipley’s Main building, Mardi Gras beads drip from the ceiling; their quiet rhythm disrupted by interlocking planks of wood, rafters nefariously swirling in a storm. The hum of a box fan deafens the clatter of torrential rain, recorded footage unveiling the destruction Hurricanes Katrina and Ida left in their wake. Shipley students enrolled in Interpreting Data for Art Installation produced these elements as part of their end-of-year exhibit.
Offered for the first time during the 2021–2022 academic year, this interdisciplinary course combined iterative design with data collection and analysis. Upper School teachers Wendy Eiteljorg ’86, Tania O’Donnell, and Elizabeth Zodda instructed students how to use data on multiple levels to interpret the world around them. Since representation inherently involves interpretation and this alters how data is understood or even approached, they stressed the value of learning and thinking in the ways of multiple disciplines.
While students carefully selected elements to represent core principles of 3D composition for the final project, some appeared as “happy accidents.” As the floor became riddled with debris during the creative process, students realized that it was a true depiction of the damage left behind. Working within the intimate space, they collaborated down to the very last detail. They carefully devised data points, using blue fabric to illustrate the level to which floodwaters rose in the city of New Orleans, and artistically depicted the structural integrity of the city’s levees—ruptured in the case of Katrina, intact during Ida.
Given the flexibility within the curriculum, teachers entwined student interests, such as school life, personal identity, and other topics, with those of the scientists, artists, and researchers they were studying. Students noted that they had never taken a class like this, calling it “an artistic thinking space without the need for as much high-level art making.” This pedagogical strategy helped students develop transferable skills which could be applied to different disciplines and real-life situations, an essential cornerstone to Shipley’s goal of preparing its students for a constantly changing world.
Students chose to address climate change for their large-scale exhibit, in which they compared two of the most destructive hurricanes to ever make landfall in the state of Louisiana. Their names—Katrina and Ida—were plastered on the walls, a somber memoriam to the hundreds of lives lost. As students narrated their final reflections, each traced how humans interact with space and place, ranging in scope from the big city to the individual—a coincidence not lost on their three teachers.
Momentous events like natural disasters not only devastate the natural landscape but also have an enduring impact on individuals in that they reveal the fragile and beautiful interconnectedness between humanity and the environment. In many ways, interdisciplinary study courses like Interpreting Data for Art Installation mirror this interconnectedness because they reinforce essential hallmarks of building community and demonstrating empathy. Because at the heart of it, we are all connected.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.