Monday, November 16, 2015

Sri Lankan Journey: On a lighter note

If you've been looking at my recent posts you may have noted they are a bit serious. I apologize. Sometimes the world looks like a serious place and you need to share it with other people. Sometimes the world is more of a joke. 

Over the past few years I developed some cool teaching and learning experiences with a wonderful but expensive construction toy called zometools. I mention expensive because I was unable to get my department head at Boston University to pay for them because he told me they didn't "smell of science." OK. A little shortsighted but that's why we have the word "workaround."

By way of workaround I got a small grant from the Boston University Arts Initiative with a proposal to combine art and science, which is exactly what I've done with the zometools. So I have my second-year undergraduates sculpting everything from enzymes to cell membranes with zometools. They have a blast and they engage with content and as they build their sculpture-models they build scientific narrative. I've had the pleasure of documenting this through the social media (mainly twitter) they send me during class in many posts here. 

Last year the Arts Initiative people contacted me and asked if I'd represent BU at the Cambridge Science Festival, a week-long event that hosts about 50,000 people. Happy to do it, I asked them to buy me some more zometools and we set up shop in the front window of the Cambridge Public Library. It was a fun event but not exactly what I had envisioned. Instead of the young adults who I thought would come, mostly parents and grandparents with young children used the room (and the zometools) as a kind of refuge from the intensity of the science festival.

With many of the kids minimally supervised (hard to believe people could have been this disrespectful of the work my students and I had put into organizing the activity) it was a bit of a mob-scene where I was pretty much a babysitter. Lots of pieces ended up broken. But as a kind of consolation prize I was able to separate out a few boxes of intact pieces to being to Sri Lanka for my Fulbright. 

Here in Sri Lanka I'm connected with the Department of Architecture. And while I won't do the molecular-oriented work I do with my BU students there's another set of exercises I developed for my design masters' students at the Boston Architectural College that focus on space, materiality, and design conceptualization.    

I pulled the zometools out of the box this morning, sent here to Sri Lanka through the generosity of the US Diplomatic Pouch, and showed them to my generous and expansive guesthouse host, Mr. Buwankeka Abeysuriya. 

Let me take a quick moment to digress about staying in Sri Lanka. If you want luxury accommodations, family-run guesthouses are probably not for you. However....

If you want to get a taste of how people are in Sri Lanka, if you want unpretentious food and company, if you want to meet a wide range of people while you sit and have your morning coffee...and perhaps most important...if you'd like to see your "travel dollar" equably distributed right within the community, so that useful employment can be offered to a range of people with a range of abilities...a great social boon that you can participate in meaningfully and even generously---a family-run guesthouse is the best way to stay in Sri Lanka. 

Bu took to the zometools immediately. The first thing he envisioned was making lamps for the Vesak Poya day that's celebrated in May. Right away he invited some of his workers to grab a table a a start assembling. They set to the building tools and methodically, carefully, and quickly conceptualized the lamps with their six squares and eight triangles. 

All the while spirits were high and discussion was rife. No one tried to speak in English. The Singhala flowed. I followed some conversations, "this is how you insert this piece," and others. "Where can I get some of these? Bu called his sister in Maryland where it was almost midnight. Everyone participated. 

Like I've seen among my students, people took naturally to the sets and worked on their own, though the conversation was merry and shared among everyone. And everyone jumped in. The pool man. One of the servers. The general maintenance guy. The receptionist. A Singhala-speaking guest who happens to be an engineer. Everyone went in their own direction except for the two guys who started assembling lamps. 

The receptionist built lovely symmetrical structures that got more complicated as she went along. The engineer started by criticizing my free-form sculpture in favor of his more organized style. "People have to live somewhere" was his ever-so-slightly too serious response to my playfulness. Hello? These are building blocks we're talking about here folks. But he caught the big and modeled a sea-urchin for himself. 

So we had a nice array of objects, what ended up to be a symmetric basket, several Vesak lamp skeletons (a light is lit inside and paper covers the lamp along with streamers), my globular creation and a rainy morning full of fun.

How cool will it be tomorrow when I introduce the zometools to my architecture students at Moratuwa?


  1. This is fine writing from a good listener.

  2. you have any contacts with City School of Architecture-Colombo..?