Students learn cultural collaboration through iron casting

Artist Phillip Harrison, left, and Barry Muchnick, who teaches environmental studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, pour molten iron into molds created by fifth grade students at Chesapeake Public Charter School on Thursday.

The Chesapeake Public Charter School last week partnered with Phillip E. Harrison of Penumbra Design to demonstrate iron casting to students, as part of a longterm project to collaborate with students at Ecole Léopold Angrand, a school on Gorée Island in Senegal.

Students at the school in Lexington Park learned about metallurgy and the states of matter as Harrison, along with Steve Rands, co-owner of Leonardtown-based metal fabricator Forgeweld, produced molten metal iron in Harrison’s traveling furnace. The iron was then casted in molds that fifth grade students created in art class.

Harrison, who has operated his studio, Penumbra Design, since 1988, uses his foundry to promote historic and contemporary casting processes through art and education. His traveling furnace, attached to a trailer hitch on the back of his truck, can heat metals at temperatures as high as 3,600 degrees.

“I use this thing once or twice a week,” Harrison said, explaining that his furnace’s portability allows him to bring iron casting across the country to historic sites and educational demonstrations.

The students also learned how to weigh and measure leftover slag, a byproduct of smelting.

The casting was the first step in a project to collaborate with Senegalese students. Students at the charter school have been able to video chat and exchange letters with students at Ecole Léopold Angrand and will work together on an art project that will be installed on Gorée Island.

The project combines cultural collaboration with topics that are being taught in the fifth grade, including art, mathematics and science.

“The students have been learning about matter and mixture in science class, so we thought this would be a great STEM project,” Heather McLearen, who teaches fifth grade math at the school, said Thursday.

“This is stuff that they have been learning in class, and now they’re able to put it into practice,” Maribeth Ganzell, who organized the exchange project, said.

Ganzell, a founder and volunteer at the school who leads the college’s Senegal Study Tour, has been working closely with the project since its inception in May, when fifth grade students at the school were introduced to Senegalese culture through an interactive cultural day.

Students from both schools will continue to collaborate throughout the project, with lessons in Senegalese culture culminating in the creation of the final sculpture. Next fall, about 40 students from each school will make their own iron castings for a sculpture that will be placed on a public square at the Museum of the Sea on Gorée Island. The students will be able to cast their own tessellated fish sculptures, resulting in a sculpture made of 125 to 175 fish.