Spotlight on the Design Lab

By James Gapp, Director of Technology

About a year ago, I saw an Instagram post sharing an incredible project called “Shadow Boxes”. Educator John Umekubo, an Educational Technology Consultant based in Los Angeles, created that project.
A few years ago, John Umekubo was invited to Harbor Day to work with me and speak to the HDS faculty on integrating technology in the classroom. Since we had collaborated previously, I called him up to ask how I could implement this project with my seventh grade design classes. He was excited about the design activity and within a few weeks, we had a curriculum mapped out and were ready to go.

The Materials

The shadow boxes use three layers of wood cut by the laser cutter to create a 3-D piece of art. Students carefully placed the wood in a small cardboard box which serves as the frame. They glued the LED lights around the interior of the box to illuminate the picture, providing a better sense of depth. 

The Glowforge laser cutter uses an actual laser beam to cut thin plywood, leather, plastic, cardboard, and many other materials. In addition to cutting, it also scores the material, meaning it cuts just below the surface and leaves a black line. It is a brand new tool here at Harbor Day, so we all have a ton to learn about its capability.

The Process 

Seventh grade students go through a meticulous process of creating the shadow boxes. The first step is to learn some basics in Adobe Illustrator. Adobe has a rather steep learning curve, so the process could be quite tedious, but that didn't stop the students from persevering. After spending five class periods learning the program, students traced an image they had created in Canva, breaking it up into three layers. I got some solid guidance from the art department and students came up with some terrific designs. The last step involved cutting their designs into the boxes and backlighting them. Students completed this step with ease. 

The results far exceeded my expectations and the pictures show how incredible their work was. I have since sent the pictures off to John to show off our students' work and he enjoyed seeing the final products. This will definitely be a staple of the seventh grade curriculum moving forward.

Student quotes about the project:

It’s really just learning a new skill that you can use later in life, such as pursuing a career in digital arts. It’s a really useful skill. 
Wright C.

It challenges you to recreate something and turn it into a real project. I liked that it was challenging. 
Sophia W.

It’s fun because we got to be creative, and it’s a hands-on learning opportunity. 
Campbell K.

About the Author

Mr. Gapp joined the faculty at Harbor Day School in 1995 as a middle school mathematics teacher and in 2010 moved to the technology department. In his current position as Director of Technology, he is responsible for the school's technology and performs such duties as technical support, staff development, curriculum development, and visioning. In addition to his administrative duties, he teaches seventh grade design classes and an eighth grade computer programming elective. Mr. Gapp received a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts and is a current member of the International Society for Technology in Education, Computer Using Educators, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He is also a Harbor Day alumnus and very happy to be a member of the HDS team.

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Harbor Day School is a co-educational private independent K-8 school established in 1952.