Diatom Paper Sculpture

Description: This activity pairs science with art, observing and exploring with making, and gives students the chance to take a tour at the OSU Museum of Art. It is inspired by Glass Houses, a multimedia artwork by Marguerite Perret and Bruce Scherting that is currently on display in the exhibition The State We’re In Water: Constructing a Sense of Place in the Hydrosphere (until May 29, 2021). This exhibition explores humanity's complex relationship to water- our dependency on it, our awe and love for it, as well as our careless waste and destruction of it. Glass Houses is a large, colorful installation piece that celebrates the tiny micro-organisms known as diatoms. Diatoms provide the earth with much of its oxygen through the process of photosynthesis and they are known as the "gems of the sea" because they are encased in glass and made of all the colors of the rainbow. 


Students will explore (virtually or in-person) The State We’re In Water: Constructing a Sense of Place in the Hydrosphere, an exhibition at the OSU Museum of Art.

Students will spend time looking at and reflecting on Glass Houses, a multi-media artwork by Marguerite Perret and Bruce Scherting.

Students will learn about diatoms- their size, appearance (from space and through a microscope), their "glass houses" (also known as frustules), and their important role in providing a portion of the earth's oxygen.

Students will experiment with curling, pinching, and folding paper to create three dimensional shapes and attach the shapes to the styrofoam base with wire or glue.

  • piece of foam core or flat piece of styrofoam that is approximately 5"x7" 
  • magazines 
  • scissors
  • glue 
  • extra foam core or a small amount of cardboard
  • thin wire 
  • acrylic paint (optional)  
1.  Visit and explore the exhibition either in person or virtually (see link below for virtual tour).

2. Spend some time in front of Glass Houses. Facilitate a conversation about the work. Begin with very broad questions so that students can make simple observations before trying to make meaning or "understand" the work. Ask, "What do you notice? When assertions or guesses are made, ask "What makes you say that?." This keeps the conversation grounded in the work itself.

3. Read the artists' statement and/or introduce the subject of diatoms. Relook at the work. "Now that you know what the artwork represents, what else can you see or understand about it?" 

4. Show students one or more of the videos listed below for more information about diatoms. Discuss each one and review any new vocabulary: photosynthesis, frustules, etc.

5. Paint the foam core or styrofoam background a solid color of your choosing using acrylic paint. We used black, but a vibrant blue or green for the ocean might be nice. Alternatively, you can leave the background white if you don't want to mess with paint.

6. While the paint is drying, have students go through their magazines, looking in particular for beautiful colors and patterns that remind them of the images of diatoms and the artwork Glass Houses.   

7. Cut the magazine paper in various shapes and sizes. Experiment with curling, pinching, or folding the shapes to create new shapes that are three dimensional (see video below for this step).

8. Attach the three dimensional paper shapes onto your background in a variety of ways: directly on the surface with glue , using wire, or mounted on small pieces of foam core or cardboard (see video below).


The State We're In Water (OSU Museum of Art)
- This is the link to the exhibition and the virtual tour. If you use the virtual tour, note that Glass Houses, the artwork referenced in this lesson, is in the room to the left of the entrance.

Plankton Chronicles
- The Plankton Chronicles Project is a short documentary series combining art and science, revealing the beauty and diversity of organisms adrift in the currents. This is a website (and book) worth exploring! There is a video specifically about diatoms that is approximately 5 minutes long. http://planktonchronicles.org/en/episode/diatoms-life-in-glass-houses/

What Are Diatoms?- This isn't as beautiful, but it's shorter (2 minutes) and full of good information.

Five Reasons To Thank Plankton- This video is about all plankton (of which diatoms are a subset), and it's fun and cheeky and the kids really liked it. Last summer we created thank you, plankton art cards during our summer camp series Art and the Ologies.