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  • Writer's pictureErin Madigan White

MFEE Boosts Art, Sustainable Learning in the Sand



For almost 10 years, Buzz Aldrin Middle School students in Arin Leard’s studio art classes have learned about sculpture and engineering through her innovative STEAM Garden, a class-sized sandbox filled with sculptural sand. 


Students spend two days in the sand per semester, first learning the basics of sand sculpture, then getting creative and making an animal sculpture of their choosing. They work in teams because working in the sand is both technical and physical, an art and a science. For many students, it’s a highlight of the class.  


“Throughout the years, I have seen amazing sculptures,” Leard said. “The students love it!” 


The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence is proud to have provided initial funding for this project, along with assistance from the PTA and other donations. MFEE originally helped pay for sand to be trucked up from Cape May! Fast forward to today, MFEE grants are helping to keep it going. This school year, MFEE purchased new buckets and shovels for students to use in the garden. 


Inspiration for the garden struck back in 2014, when Leard attended an art conference and a workshop taught by world-famous sand sculptor John Gowdy


“All I could think about was how I could sustainably turnkey this to my students,” Leard said. “After a few weeks of brainstorming and hitting walls on the idea, I basically decided to put it on the shelf for another time since it seemed impossible. Literally, that night I dreamt about a giant sandbox in the corner of the playground behind what was then Mount Hebron. I woke up, took some notes, and a year later it came to be with a lot of help from friends, administrators, colleagues, and the community.” 


In 2015, the artist Gowdy attended the grand opening of the STEAM garden and did a two-day workshop for students. And in 2016, when the middle school was renamed in his honor, Buzz Aldrin himself visited and was impressed, Leard said. 


“These are the types of big ideas our grants support. We love helping creative teachers like Ms. Leard bring their visions to life. To see this project thriving and continuing to inspire Buzz Aldrin art students over the years is deeply gratifying," said Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of MFEE.


Grants like this are only possible with community support. MFEE’s Teacher Toasts, family-hosted parties that have become a Montclair tradition, raise critical funds that go directly back into classrooms via innovation grants to teachers. Check out our blog for some of the other amazing experiences and tools we've recently funded, supporting dance, music production, sports journalism, culinary education, and much more. 


And don’t forget to give some hearts to the awesome student artwork showcased recently on Buzz Aldrin’s Instagram @buzzaldrinms!


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