Form, Function, and Safety First

Danny Stock

Middle School students tackle safety designs for a changed world.

Our students inhabit a world burdened by so many things beyond their control, and there is no better tool of empowerment than developing in them the personal agency to protect themselves and work towards change. In Middle School Art and Science, students have participated in design projects to do just that.

Students have explored what art teachers John Headley and Jenn Heffernan are calling, “Fashion Design for a New World.” Students were tasked with designing “an outfit or an item of clothing suitable for the conditions of COVID-19, climate change, or living on another planet.”

The art lesson, which served to introduce students to simplified figure drawing and basic concepts of design thinking, also invited students to consider the intersections of functionality and self-expression. “Many professions have clothing that is specifically designed and engineered to ensure particular performance requirements and/or functionality for the user,” the teachers wrote to students. “This includes protection against extreme hazards and environments during work and sporting activities that require high-level performance and protection.” At the same time, they explained the non-utilitarian qualities of clothing as a reflection of societal and individual identity. “Clothing is also a way for [members of] society to express themselves collectively and individually. Clothes can reflect the spiritual, cultural, political, and economic standing of the individual wearing the garments.”

As students embarked upon their own designs, they were invited to think about the consumer (“Who are you designing the garment for?”), essential functions needed (“How will the garment help the person wearing it?”), style (“What style or culture influences your design?”), and...this is GDS, after to have fun with their designs.

You can view several of the students’ design sketches in the gallery below.

In Science, students have been studying Newton’s laws of motion and their application to car safety devices. After learning how crumple zones and airbags both serve to reduce velocity over a longer period of time (thus reducing the force on the vehicle or people inside), students gathered household items to construct their own safety contraptions to protect a single fragile item. Science teachers Michael Desautels and Amanda Long asked students to engineer specifically for the item they managed to find in their home—an egg, a lightbulb, a tomato, a seashell, whatever they could find—and get permission to use should their design fail and the item smash.

“For my breakable object, I used an egg,” wrote Anna ’24. “As I was planning, I knew I wanted to use soft objects to cushion the fall of the egg. I thought that a cup would be a good structural base for the device. I drew out a preliminary sketch so I had an idea of what I was doing. I constructed the device without the egg, and tested it to make sure it held up. For the protective device, I used hand towels, cotton balls, a plastic cup, and rubber bands.” After constructing and testing the device at drop heights of one and two meters, Anna wrote, “My design succeeded in protecting the egg because the cotton balls and hand towels cushioned its fall. They absorbed the energy from when the device hit the ground, which resulted in less energy being transferred to the egg. The layers of protection around the egg acted as the crumple zone of a car does: absorbing energy from the impact so that less energy is transferred to the object.”

Iansa ’24 used quite different protective items (sponges, a jar of oil, a silk scarf, and rubber bands) but had similar success in protecting her dropping egg. She also incorporated a seat belt feature made with rubber bands. She admitted, “It looks a little weird but it works.” You can view Iansa’s 2-meter test drop on video here.

Quentin ’24 wisely went through several preliminary designs before testing the device with a lightbulb and took necessary precautions for his final test. In his discussion note to Amanda afterward he wrote, “For fear of broken glass on the floor, I put a cookie tray down as a landing pad. Shouldn’t have cushioned the fall at all, as it was metal and thin. Quentin’s design included a “burrito-shell style” design to hold cushioning cotton balls in place. “It worked!” he declared in his notes. “Though there was the sound of the lightbulb hitting, it didn’t break—something I see as a sign of the cotton balls effectively cushioning the fall and slowing down the lightbulb before it hit.”

While so many things are beyond the control of our students, we know GDS teachers are doing everything they can to develop meaningful lessons that are responsive to the times we are living through. Creating opportunities for students to celebrate (“It worked!”) can also shift their mindset in a healthy direction.


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