Field Lane JI&N

Project: Alchemy
Science topic: Properties & Changes of Materials
Participants: Year 6 pupils
Artist: Ammie Flexen

Our Alchemy project will see us exploring the processes involved in making accidental discoveries and seeing how they can lead to measured, careful observations and experiments.   Just like artists and scientists, we have a curiosity to discover ‘what if?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ and to investigate different possibilities. Exploring clay and the connections between it and metal states will make this a really exciting project – who would have thought mud could end up so colourful, translucent and beautiful?! We’ll be investigating different properties of clay and observing and recording how it behaves in plastic, malleable, dried and soluble form. We’ll learn how it is changed by the effects of external influences such as air, time, forces and extreme heat, and how it can be changed by adding materials such as sawdust, leaves and paper to the mix. The word Alchemy came from Ancient Egypt and Greece and how matter is made up of the four elements of nature – Fire, Earth, Air and Water. Sounds like pottery to us!


Session 1: 15th February 2017
Today we met with Ammie and Jack. Ammie is an artist working in clay and Jack works at Cummins Turbo Technologies. Jack told us about his work at Cummins and helped us to work out some methods of testing the clay we are working with, including weighing the clay before and after our experiments. We plan to discover the material properties of clay and especially porcelain. Ammie told us about an alchemist by the name of Johann Friedrich Bottger, who was imprisoned by Augustus the Strong in the 1700’s and ordered to create gold. Bottger never found out how to make gold but instead discovered the secret to making porcelain. It’s because of Bottger that porcelain came to Europe. We explored the properties of different clays, red, sanded and white porcelain and discovered that they feel and look very different. We made our own alchemy installation from clay, imagining the object we might find in an alchemist’s laboratory. Ammie told us about how heat changes clay and some of our experiments will be fired to see how they change. We had the idea to test clay at freezing temperatures.

“It was exciting and I had fun playing with the clay”

“The porcelain feels different to the normal clay”

“What would happen to dry clay if we put it in the water?”

“If you wrap clay around a rolling pin, you can make a perfect pot”

“I chose to investigate what would happen if you put clay in the freezer”

“I wonder what would happen if I left clay in my hands for a very long time”

“I loved experimenting with the clay”

“Brilliant, engaging session where children had fun ‘playing’ with clay. They were learning new techniques and there was a strong science element running through the session. The children thought about how they were going to investigate clay and its properties. The session allowed lots of talk and interaction” (staff member)

Session 2: 15th March 2017
Today was all about experimenting with different clays and decorating techniques. We made small decorative textures using porcelain to see if we could make it thin enough to be translucent once it’s fired. We found that porcelain is smooth but quite difficult to work with as it gets brittle very quickly. We compared the differences between the crank clay (that has sand in it) and the smooth grey clay and porcelain. We noted the differences in colour and how they reacted when we put extra water on them. We all enjoyed trying colours slips out on the turntables – we trickled, dripped and sponged different colours onto round tiles, while spinning them and dragging tools through to make patterns.   It was very hard to know when to stop – even when we had a pattern we liked, we wanted to keep adding the colours! The slips sat on the surface of the clay, and we noticed how different that is to clay that is fired. We painted glaze on the pieces we made in the first week, noticing that the water soaked into the clay quickly and became dry straight away. Now we are looking forward to seeing how the colours change when they come out of the kiln.

“I really enjoyed experimenting and investigating the properties of clay”

“When I added water to the sandy clay, all the particles came apart”

“The porcelain was my favourite. I liked pressing it to make it as thin as possible but it was really hard to do that without it ripping”

“I enjoyed investigating the clay and adding water to see what will happen. I predicted that when I added water, it would stay hard. My prediction was wrong”

“I liked adding the colours on the clay. It’s exciting to see what they’ll end up like when they’ve been fired”

“I liked playing on the wheel. I liked to drop colours and see how they mix into one another”

“What a brilliant session! All children were thoroughly engaged. They had the chance to experiment and learn new techniques and had the chance to investigate the properties of clay. There was a fantastic balance between science and art” (staff member)

Session 3: 29th March 2017

We have been experimenting with forces, by testing out what happens when we add paint to a spinning surface. We mixed our own powdered paints first of all, and worked out how to mix colours together. Jack, our engineering buddy, helped us mix colours. We noticed that the green gazebo reflected colour on the silver paint and made it look green. We put paper on the pottery wheel that Ammie had brought in, and made the wheel spin while we squeezed paint on. It was messy and we found it hard to stop pouring the paint as it was just too exciting. But we soon worked out that we got really interesting patterns by limiting the number of colours on each one. We thought some of them looked like fireworks exploding. The more liquid the paint, the further and faster it spread, compared to the thicker ones. We were also building clay into moulds to make interesting shapes, and developing ideas for our exhibition piece. We tested building, sticking and pinching the clay with our fingers. It has been a very experimental session.

“My favourite was experimenting with the colours on the potter’s wheel. It was mesmerising watching the colours blend into one another”

“I enjoyed making my own pinch pot, this is a new technique that I had never done before”

“When clay dries, it shrinks and crumbles. It’s important to make sure we fill our moulds with clay properly”

Session 4: 29th March 2017

We looked at the work that we made in session 1 and glazed in session 2. The colours were amazing, especially the gold. We carried on with building our clay pieces, working collaboratively. Some of us built large round shapes in moulds, some of us built taller shapes around tubes. We took our time to think about how we wanted our shapes and textures to look. We learnt that we needed to make the clay thick enough to be able to carry its weight when dry on the big pieces. We are planning to join some of them together, but they need to dry out a bit first, as we learnt in our first week that wet clay is heavy and can’t hold its own weight. Some of us made smaller items and we could make those much thinner. When everyone had finished working on the pottery wheel paint spinning challenge, we all worked with Ammie to try a similar technique but with clay. She put clay slabs on the wheel and we added slips and oxides as it was spinning round. Towards the end of the session, our teachers had a go at throwing pots, with all the class and some parents watching. It was fun not knowing quite where it would all end up. Ammie is now drying out our clay work in her studio, where it will be fired ready for the exhibition. We are looking forward to seeing how the glazes turn out.

“I loved watching Ammie throw the pot on the potter’s wheel. She made it look so easy”

“I loved looking at our clay pieces which had been fired. The gold was beautiful. We are alchemists”

“What a brilliant final session with Ammie. The children were engaged throughout the day, mixing paints, making pinch pots, making clay structures and dropping paints on the potter’s wheel. It was a fantastic day where all the children and adults had a great time and learnt new techniques” Staff member

A few final words from our teacher

“The project fully met the science objectives initially set out, and more! Each session allowed the children to learn new things about the properties of clay, slips and glazes. There was a sense of awe in their learning. Children have also learnt lots of new creative techniques and become increasingly confident working with clay – they built up skills from the first session to the fourth. Ammie planned activities to ensure collaborative work and discussions between peers – children were working independently, in pairs and in larger groups, with a lot of talk around the work they were doing and discussions around the science investigations. The staff members involved have picked up on new pottery techniques that we can teach in a class setting. We have also seen how easily you can link science to art and consolidate scientific learning through creative methods. Just a brilliant project, as it is every year – children and staff thoroughly enjoyed it.”   Aneesa Rawat – Year 6 Teacher