In the fall of 2013, Ben Volta arrived at Morton McMichael School with no ideas. He had just been hired by the school in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia, in partnership with Mural Arts Program, to develop a mural with the students.
He had no lesson plan, no vision of what the mural would be. He came on the first day of class, sat down with the 7th graders, and listened to the teacher.
"I remember them doing a lot of long division," said Volta. "I don't remember how to do that, and I was trying to figure it out as they go."
Ben Volta directs the painting of a massive mural that wraps around Morton McMichael School in Mantua. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
His mind started to wander. As a kid, Volta was a terrible student, barely earning the marks to graduate from high school, but he always excelled at art. While not paying attention to long division, he remembered a short movie he had once seen called Powers of 10, a 1977 film made for IBM by Ray and Charles Eames – designers famous for the Eames chair.
The film is a visual experiment in representing exponential multiplication. It starts by focusing on two people picnicking in a park in Chicago, and slowly zooms out. Every 10 seconds, the field of view expands to the next power of 10. It takes just a few minutes to reach the infinite expanse of the universe.
Painters (clockwise from left) Jason Mattis, R. Craig and Jesse Krimes put the finishing touches on the "Micro to Macro" mural designed by students at Morton McMichael School in Mantua. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Then it zooms back in by the same power of 10, in reverse, quickly finding that couple on the picnic blanket and zeroing in to a microscopic level, probing the structure of skin cells.
"It went from the people out to the universe, and the universe back to the people, and in their skin cells," said Khia Smith, one of Volta's students. "It was weird, is what I'm saying."
"I remember that. The whole class had that 'ewww ... wow' factor," Volta responded. "Everybody liked it, but it was 'ewww' when you got in and recognize that is inside all of our skin cells."
Once you get "ewww" out of 12-year-olds, you're golden. Volta started taking the 7th graders through design exercises that would end up becoming the mural, called Micro to Macro. At the south entrance to the school, the wall is made of exploded molecular imagery, becoming plant cells and trees to the east. As the mural wraps around the corner and moves north, the imagery becomes cosmic with solar systems and planetary orbits.
As Ben Volta's "Micro to Macro" mural wraps around the corner of Morton McMichael School and moves north, the imagery becomes cosmic with solar systems and planetary orbits. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Along the way, the students learned about plant biology, the solar system, and vesica piscis - an obscure way to create perfect equilateral triangles by drawing circles with a compass. It's how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.
Volta is not a scientist, and he is not particularly good at math. Nevertheless he is recognized as an excellent teacher of science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM educational initiative. Add art to the mix, and STEM becomes STEAM.