In an extraordinary collaboration between the UI Departments of Computer Science, Dance, and Theatre Arts, the three credit-hour “Dancing Robots” and “Robot Theater” classes have presented thirteen UI students and three instructors with unusual cross-discipline opportunities.
Five programmable robots — Alberto, Christopher, Denise, Daniel, and Amanda — were purchased from the Boston based Aldebaran Robotics Company, in part with funds from a 2014 Innovations in Technology Award bestowed by the university’s Academic Technologies Advisory Council.
Aldebaran Robotics develops their NAO humanoid robots specifically for STEM. Flexible shoulder, neck, hip, knee, and ankle joints enable the robots to replicate many human movements. January through May 2014, Dance and CS students immersed themselves in an interactive project that asked them to unite their scientific and creative expertise toward a shared goal: choreograph a dance for robots and program them to perform it in as part of a final show. During the Fall 2014 semester, “Robot Theater” students have programmed robots to convincingly recite monologues, perform magic tricks, act out skits, and explore the relationship between humans and robots.
“As soon as I heard ‘robots’ and ‘dancing,’ I said, ‘Count me in,’” explained Denise Szecsei, 11MS. A lecturer in computer science and mathematics, and the courses’ primary instructor, she was inspired by a premise that required students to stretch beyond their comfort zones, solve complex problems, and learn in a hands-on environment. The setting reminded Szecsei of why she loves teaching in the first place: to see students actively engage in the learning process and surprise themselves in ways they didn’t think possible.
Charlotte Adams, co-instructor who coached the Spring 2014 “Dancing Robots” class on choreography, told the UI’s Iowa Now online news source: “Collaboration is an especially vital skill. The world needs creative thinkers and scientific thinkers working and learning together.”
To come to life, each robot must be hooked to a computer loaded with special software for programming voice, behavior, and movement. The UI computer science students’ experience in programming languages like Python, C++, and Java came in handy, while dance and theater students have benefited from a simple-to-use graphic software program called Choregraphe that made the world of computer programming accessible and less intimidating.
For the final “Dance” recital in May 2014, each student choreographed and programmed one piece for the overall program. Out of that collaborative passion came pieces like “Robots in Love,” “Evolution of Beyonce,” “I’m Looking at Trisha Brown” - featuring a robot duet with a human dancer - and “Robot Dance Class,” incorporating the Styx hit “Mr. Roboto.” Eventually, all eight individual feats of choreography came together in “U of iRobot,” one seamless performance complete with an introduction, intermission, robot emcees, and a playbill with robot bios.
“Robot Theater” performances, culmination of the Fall 2014 class, were held Wednesday, December 10 from 5:30-8 pm (Rehearsal) and Monday, December 15 at 1 pm (Official performance) in Theatre B.
Szecsei also took the robots on STEM outreach visits to area K-12 schools, sharing with younger students what they were able to accomplish — and inspiring them to believe in their own abilities. Because the robots immediately capture the attention and imagination of youngsters, they make a perfect outreach tool. Professor Szecsei has also worked with three fifth and sixth graders. Their work, a robotic rendition of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham," was showcased during the Spring, 2015 semester. On a similar vein, a robot camp for fifth-grade students and sixth to eighth-graders took place in Summer, 2015 and Summer, 2016/2017, respectively.