Like the gears in a finely tuned machine, donor contributions keep many non-profits – including the Palouse Discovery Science Center – running smoothly. So when digital media students at Washington State University were asked to visually represent donor support for the PDSC, the idea of interconnected gears quickly emerged and became, quite literally, the perfect fit.

Seventeen undergraduates in Reza Safavi’s introductory Digital Design and Fabrication course last spring worked individually and as a team to create a 7-by-7-foot interactive art installation composed of 22 precision-cut and fitted, wooden cogwheels bearing the names of PDSC’s generous benefactors.

Easily set into motion with a hand crank, the array of interlaced, variously sized spinning wheels now greets visitors to the youth-oriented activity and education center at 950 NE Nelson Ct. in Pullman.

The “Donor Gear Wall” fits especially well with PDSC’s myriad interactive displays and demonstrations, said center director Meri Joswiak.

“Its bright colors and dynamic shapes invite you to ask ‘why?’ ‘how?’ and ‘can I?’ – instantly setting the stage for hands-on science exploration and learning. It’s often the first thing a child interacts with on their way into the Science Center, and the last thing they touch,” Joswiak said.

“The project provided an opportunity for our students to gain professional experience by working with a community organization to design, create and present an interactive, digitally fabricated, public work of art,” said Safavi, associate professor and digital media coordinator in the Department of Fine Arts. “It’s a great example of how WSU classes can engage with the wider community and further serve the university’s land-grant mission.”

Working initially in small groups, Safavi’s students drafted five unique concepts for a dynamic display to honor PDSC’s donors. They then pitched their ideas, including the gear wall, to the project funders and stakeholders: the center’s board of directors, the fine arts chair and the College of Arts and Sciences dean.

Learning and applying a range of skills

This real-world experience was particularly fitting, Safavi said, because it helped “emphasize that artists need not only design and technical skills but also strong professional abilities, including effective communication and presentation skills.”

After the gears concept was selected, the students embarked together on the iterative design process. “They were able to incorporate their individual ideas and aesthetics without losing the cohesiveness of the design working as a whole,” Safavi said.

The class collaborated to develop and refine the final prototype and then designed and crafted their individual gears using state-of- the-art software and technologies housed in the Digital Fabrication Laboratory, aka “Digital Fab Lab.”

Assisted by fine arts technicians Daniel Manwaring and JJ Harty, the students gained valuable hands-on experienceusing high-tech tools for designing, cutting, sanding, painting and arranging their cogwheels into a truly stirring, energetic piece of art.

An important part of the students’ task was learning to shape the cogs, or teeth, of their individually designed gears so they would fit together, said Abby Larson of Seattle, now a senior majoring in Digital Technology and Culture and minoring in fine arts.

“The biggest takeaway for me would be the collaboration skills we learned. We all had to make sure that our cog would fit with everyone else’s!” Larson said.

“Children love to come in and watch the effect each gear has on the other,” Joswiak said. “Cranking it up seems to signal, ‘I’m here and I’m ready to explore!’ And the low rumble of the grinding wheels resonates throughout the building, alerting staff and volunteers to another visitor and another opportunity to spark joy and wonder.”

In October, Manwaring and Harty completed and permanently installed the artwork in the main entrance to the PDSC.

“Something really memorable for me was watching the laser printers cut the wood into these perfect shapes that we had designed on the computer,” Larson said. “I hope viewers understand the function of it, and I hope they would be inspired to learn more about how we made it.”

PDSC visitors of all ages can put the Donor Gear Wall into motion by turning a handle on one of the gears, which sets them all in motion, Safavi said. “I hope it helps visitors understand that all parts of the organization working together with donors is what makes the PDSC spin.”

Future community art collaborations between Safavi and the science center are already in the works.

Encouraging exploration

Reza Safavi, third from right, and several of his Digital Design and Fabrication students show off their handiwork.

Digital media students at WSU can explore a wide variety of art and design mediums, including 2D and 3D animation; interactive media; 3D printing and digital fabrication; print-based design; digital drawing, painting, and video; virtual and augmented reality; experimental sound; kinetic sculpture; and physical computing. In addition to focusing on their individual art making and artistic development, students collaborate on interdisciplinary projects and research.

They are encouraged to develop unique and diverse approaches to using digital media as vehicles for creative expression, experimentation and critical thinking. Courses draw from the arts and the humanities to examine current social issues and the impacts of emerging technologies.

See more photos and video of the project.