Christina Williams: Nexus

Christina Williams: Visual Arts Teacher
Education: University of the Pacific, BFA; Academy of Art College, San Francisco, MFA

Nexus (n): an important connection between the parts of a system or a group of things.
(Cambridge English Dictionary)
Nexus is a visual arts class at College Prep that investigates the intersection of art, design, technology, and culture in the contemporary landscape. Dan Battle and Christina Williams designed and are currently co-teaching the course.
Where did the idea for Nexus come from?
Dan Battle: The class came about in an organic way. A laser cutter and 3D printer were donated to College Prep, which was the spark needed for us to actualize our goal of creating a makers space, the X-Lab, at the school. To take advantage of this cutting-edge equipment, we designed a course that teaches students to use these machines as a means to explore the ways technology and art intersect.
Christina Williams: I think art and technology have traditionally been thought of as very distinct disciplines. But technology is becoming more prevalent in every facet of life; many of today’s artists and designers are also often technologists in one form or another.
Are there any prerequisites to take the class?
Christina: One of our goals was to provide a class for students who might be intimidated by making art, or who think they aren’t the ‘artistic type.’ There are no prerequisites to take the class, and we have a range of students; some are regular features in our other art classes, while some are stepping out of their comfort zone. It’s especially encouraging to see those students who are new to the visual arts program at Prep bring varied perspectives to the course.
How is the class structured?
Dan: We start out in a rather traditional way learning the fundamentals of effective design. We look at examples of good and bad design, and students work on a few small projects. The students then become technically adept with the laser cutter and the 3D printer, discovering what they are capable of, while learning the software to control them, like SketchUp and Tinkercad. 
Christina: This year’s main project is game design. Some students are redesigning classic board games like Monopoly; others are turning video games into physical games. One student is designing a game for the company where her mother works—they have an open office with many adjoining desks— and employees seated next to each other can play the game. These are fun projects that are also a great way for kids to learn about commercial design and manufacturing.
How do you see Nexus evolving?
Dan: As we grow, we plan to introduce new modules in addition to our current focus on game design. There are many synergies with computer science; bringing in teachers from that area would be a great next step. We also hope to partner with faculty from other departments, as well.
On a more personal note, what do you enjoy most about teaching at Prep?
Christina: Well, first of all—and this has been said many times before—Prep students are highly engaged and self-motivated young people. For example, a few Nexus students came into the class already having some experience with 3D modeling software. They’ve ended up teaching their classmates (as well as Dan and me) a lot in that regard. And, they’re gracious about it!
Dan: Aside from our incredible students, one of the things I most appreciate as an educator here is the autonomy we have in designing our classes. At other schools, the curriculum might be very standardized and the teacher can feel constrained. At College Prep, teachers are given a huge amount of leeway to design courses that are meaningful and relevant. This can be a great challenge, but is also very rewarding and allows us to make more of a personal investment in the classes we teach.
There has been a lot of press about STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). What do you think is the value of an education in the arts?
Christina: In the past few years there’s been the emergence of the STEAM movement, which argues that we need to bring art into the STEM paradigm. Art teaches kids to think creatively to solve problems. Making art is a process. Sometimes students want to jump right to the end. Some students ask, “Why can’t we just start painting?” I like to emphasize that art requires thought and planning, just like preparing for a lab or an essay. You need to choose a palette, think about composition, consider and outline the steps required to achieve the final product; there’s a lot more to it than just sitting down and creating something beautiful.
Dan: In my photography class I like to compare a photograph to an essay. What’s the thesis? How is the structure of the photograph reinforcing that thesis? And like Christina said, being an artist involves lots of problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting. Many people don’t fully recognize this. These are important skills to teach young people—that may also lead to the creation of something meaningful.
The startup funding for Nexus was provided by the 2014 Senior Parent Gift, an annual tradition where parents join together to honor their students’ experieinces at College Prep. They created the Class of 2014 Endowment for Innovation. The school is most grateful!

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