THORNDIKE — Four middle schoolers’ whimsical fiber art installation taught them not only about art, but also about the many elements of teamwork required to design, engineer and create a project.

Under the guidance of Regional School Unit 3’s Gifted and Talented Program teacher Ann McClellan, four Mount View seventh and eighth graders designed, engineered and constructed a fiber art bridge that now spans the atrium at the Mount View Complex.

Stuffed squirrels appear to navigate the “Squirrel Bridge” designed, engineered and constructed by Mount View Middle School students. Courtesy of Ann McClellan

Not unlike the process of engineering a bridge to span a river, the project challenged their abilities to collaborate in creating a workable design, organizing respective roles, solving problems as they arose, keeping open minds, trusting each other and building self-awareness — all elements of a STEAM project (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

“Those design team skills are all important lifelong skills,” said McClellan, whose background is in art and design. She works with a small group of middle school students. Kaden Bradeen, Brady Bryant, Julia Richards and Juliet Jewett learned about bridges all last fall — and then it was time to build one.

“We talked about materials we might work with, and we ended up choosing rope because it was something we could work with within the classroom space,” McClellan said. The students planned to create a series of nets, which they would link together.

“The project materials and process also had a great connection to net-making in Maine, and we talked about that,” McClellan said. “It’s a dying skill.” In her search for a net-making expert to help them, she called boatyards and marine supply companies, but “no one knew who to direct me to.”

McClellan was familiar with Anne Coddington, who teaches fiber arts and sculpture at the University of Illinois. “So I approached her and asked her if she’d be willing to teach the students a couple of workshops on netting techniques,” she said.

Coddington taught the Mount View students via Zoom teleconferencing. “As a playful idea, they decided to create what was called a ‘Squirrel Bridge,'” McClellan said. The team worked on the project for almost six weeks, meeting a couple of times a week for 45-minute classes.

“It was a collaboration,” she said. “Each student worked on several sections. They talked about it, really looking at what real engineers and designers consider, how were they going to make the bridge, what materials would they use, what was the nature of the materials, where was it going to be installed, what were their techniques working with the materials, how did they have to adjust the techniques.”

When they ran into problems with their materials getting “kinky and twisty,” they had to stop and unravel them. “They found out Anne Coddington typically uses a waxed cotton thread,” McClellan said. The students learned from their experience and changed materials.

“That’s what happens when you’re creating a piece of art,” McClellan said. “It’s also what happens in (real-life) engineering and construction — materials respond in different ways.”

Their finished project, a net bridge complete with stuffed squirrels traversing it, is now installed above the atrium at Mount View.