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Grinnell’s 2017 Kinetic Sculpture Competition

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in what I hope becomes a regular event, the 2017 Grinnell Kinetic Sculpture Competition. I suppose I should tell you a bit about how that competition came about. The competition was sponsored by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation & Leadership [1]. Wilson is one of the cool things about Grinnell. Thanks to the generosity of the Wilsons and the sensible appropriation of that generosity by the trustees, we have funding available for a variety of projects related to Innovation and Leadership. I particularly appreciate that the current Wilson model, in which students can propose projects for Wilson to fund.

So, how did we end up with a Kinetic Sculpture Competition, which served as the capstone of Grinnell’s innovation week, after Pioneer Weekend [2] and Spark Tank [3]? Leina’ala Voss, who joined the Wilson Board as one of its student members this year, proposed and designed the competition. She then ran the whole thing, wrangling students to participate, wrangling judges [4], arranging the space, creating the judging rubric [6] and everything else that made the event possible.

Ten teams signed up to participate in the competition. Five of those ten teams ended up completing their projects. All of the projects were excellent [8]. And all of the projects were very different. A few used natural forces to achieve motion. Those created some beautiful and interesting effects along the way. Two managed to get fairly unpredictable motion from a regular action. But those were very different in terms of action (spinning wooden plates in one case, a moving a wire sculpture in the other). The fifth was mostly clockworks, plus a turntable. But the regular movement in that piece was quite successful.

In any case, it was really great to see what students came up with. One of the requirements for the project was that students put together multi-disciplinary teams, and I appreciated seeing how different skills and knowledge came together [9]. It was fun to hear how students came up with the project, what obstacles they encountered and how they worked around them, and even what they would do differently in the future. I might not have found the time to attend if I were not a judge, so I’m glad that Leina’ala asked me to serve.

The competition was also successful in meeting the goals of the Wilson program. Certainly, Leina’ala got lots of leadership experience [10]. But the groups clearly came up with innovative approaches and developed their skills in innovation. My conversations with the different groups also revealed various kinds of leadership. For example, one team had someone who wanted to compete, rounded up a group of people they thought would collaborate well, and then let them collaborate; a member of another team ended up serving as a bridge between very different perspectives on the project.

And it’s Grinnell. That means that Wilson set a budget for the projects, required teams to stay within that budget, and covered the costs of the projects. I’m thrilled that we’re a place at which the ability to compete (at least in this event) is not governed by your ability to pay for materials.

I look forward to attending next year’s show [11], whether or not I serve as a judge.

[1] It used to have Enterprise in the name. I tried to convince folks that we should order them as Leadership, Innovation, and Enterprise, but no one liked the TLA.

[2] Another great student-proposed project, now in its third or fourth year.

[3] This Innovation for Social Justice competition was designed by our center for Careers, Life, and Service.

[4] I’m not sure why, but she asked me to judge. I expect it’s because I’m on the Wilson Committee, but perhaps there are other reasons, too. Andrew Kaufman [6], from Studio Art, served as the other judge.

[5] I recall a critique session in Kaufman’s digital art class in which I suggested some changes to an admittedly mediocre work, and he said Sam, that’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Let’s cut our losses and move on. I love having Kaufman as a colleague.

[6] Kaufman and I agreed that our job would have been much harder without the rubric. The rubric also let us discover that he’s much more strict in his assessment than I am. Since I’m usually a hard grader, I’m always happy to find that there’s someone I’m less harsh than. But I guess I was fairly generous in my rankings, so maybe I should be all that happy. I should take another Kaufman class to improve my abilities to analyze and assess artworks [7].

[7] Alliteratively.

[8] Admittedly, all of them also had potential for significant improvement. But both Kaufman and I were relatively restrained in our critiques.

[9] Unfortunately, every project but one was missing one or more of the team, so I felt that while we got a fairly comprehensive view of each project, there were also parts that were missing.

[10] I expect that she learned way too much about Servant Leadership.

[11] We hope that the competition will become an annual event.

Version 1.0 of 2017-04-16.