By Leonard Shapiro, Middleburg Life
Earlier this fall, Middleburg Academy Head of School Colley Bell wanted to see for himself exactly what all the student buzz was about when he decided to walk over to the campus's latest innovative "classroom."
He'd heard many of them animatedly chattering about the experience they'd had working with art instructor Stephen Rueckert on one of two forges set up in a large converted storage area.
Rueckert was teaching his charges how to manipulate a glowing hunk of metal that had been heated to 1,500 red--hot degrees on one of two forges-one coal-fired, the other fueled by propane. The students would learn how to bend it, twist it and eventually shape it into something that might even be used on another building project at the school.
"The kids were all talking about it," Bell said. "And after I tried it myself, I knew why. When you feel that metal bend, something really happens to you. It's quite amazing. Now all the students want to try it. They want to start a forge club."
Rueckert, now in his second year on the Middleburg Academy faculty, learned how to use a forge many years ago when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He spent his first 20 years after college as a full-time artist living in Brooklyn before he went back to school at age 40 to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Brooklyn College.
A widely-acclaimed sculptor, his work can be found in the permanent collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Brooklyn Museum and has been featured in publications such as Art Forum, the New York Times, Washington Post and The New Scientist.
New York City school system before moving south, where he taught at St. Albans in Washington before changing venues to Middleburg Academy. He was brought on board to help Bell and other faculty members figure out a way to boost the school's STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) with a healthy infusion of the arts and humanities. Make that STEAM, with an equal emphasis on the A, as in arts.
The school also is implementing another acronym - MOCHA - which stands for Make One Connection Happen-Arts, Academics, and Athletics. The primary goal, according to the school's description of the program, "is to encourage every teacher to reach out across the curriculum to partner, collaborate and make at last one teaching connection happen every semester."
Rueckert is heavily involved in helping to coordinate that effort, and he's also a firm believer in employing a hands-on approach to his own teaching.
"If you're going to be an engineer," Rueckert said, "you should know what it takes to bend a piece of steel. It helps you understand how things get made. Many engineering schools are getting the bright kids., but many of them don't have that hands-on experience, which to me would seem to be so important."
There's also another useful benefit to the forge work, along with other practical skills Smith is teaching his students, including welding and glass making.
Middleburg Academy is embarking on a project to restore a stable complex built in 1910 that hasn't been used in years and nearly had its roof collapse in a major hail storm in May, 2016. Students will be using the forges to make replicas of original handles on the stable doors, and they're learning basic woodworking and how to etch glass windows that also will be used in the stable renovation.
The stable's eventual residentshorses-will also be part of the first S in STEAM, as in the science curriculum.
"To me, it's all about the balance between science and the humanities," he said. "It's a collaboration across the whole curriculum-Latin and and science, math and science, art and engineering. There are just so many possibilities. You want to show them how to use the tools and use their imaginations. 'Il1at's my joy-getting them to use their creativity and their imagination."