UI CS Performing Robots

CS @ UI NAO robots at a2ru conference 11/6/2014.

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In an extraordinary collaboration between the UI Departments of Computer Science, Dance, and Theater 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

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.”

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.


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 unintimidating.

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.

The new educational iteration, a first-year seminar entitled “Storming the Castle: Adventures in Robot Theatre,” was offered in the Fall, 2015 and 2016 semesters. A similar first-year seminar entitled "A Synthetic Performance: Adventures in Robot Theatre" was offered in Fall, 2017.

Past events:

Hacking Arts 2014 (MIT) - October 3 - 5, 2014 - hackingarts.com

“Performing Arts Panel - Ready.Tech.Go: Re-Inventing Performing Arts through Technology

Denise Szecsei, Lecturer at University of Iowa, Dancing Robots”

You @ UI - October 25, 2014 - https://admissions.uiowa.edu/youatui

“Performing Robots 110 Maclean Hall (MLH)

Learn about humanoid robots and watch them perform. Attendees will have the opportunity to see the robots in a live performance and hear about what it is like to work with them.”

a2ru (ISU) - November 5 - 8, 2014 - https://sandbox.a2ru.org/events/conference-archive/2014-a2ru-national-co...

“Integrating Computer Science and the Performing Arts”

The Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa has designed a new interdisciplinary, project-based course in collaboration with the Department of Dance in which students design and implement a 45-minute dance recital performed by autonomous humanoid robots. A discussion of the course, especially from the computer science point of view, will be accompanied by a short sample routine by the robots.

Denise Szecsei, Lecturer, Department of Computer Science, University of Iowa”

Fall 2014 performance

Dress Rehearsal: Wed 12/10 5:30-8 pm Theater B | Final Performance: Mon 12/15 1 pm Theater B

Spring 2015 performances

50th Anniversary / UICC Performance (2/27/15): Fri 3:00-4:00 pm UCC Recital Hall

Final Performance: Wed 5/13/15 3:30-4:30 pm Theater B Theater Building

Summer 2015 performance

Robot Theater Summer Camp Final Performance: July 17, 2015

Fall 2015 performance

Sat 10/3/15 2 pm Theater B Theater Building. Course information can be found at CS:1000:0001 First-Year Seminar Storming the Castle: Adventures in Robot Theatre.

Summer 2016 performance

Robot Theater Summer Camp Final Performance: Friday 6/24/16 11 am Belin-Blank Center, Room 140.

Fall 2016 performance

Sat 10/1/16 2 pm Theatre B Theater Building. Course information can be found at CS:1000:0001 First-Year Seminar Storming the Castle: Adventures in Robot Theatre.

Spring 2017

Fri 4/7/17 Workshops starting at 9 am followed by a performance at 4 pm in Studio Theater at Saint Ambrose University. Promotional video at this link.

Summer 2017 performances (1/2)

Robot Theater Summer Camp Final Performance: Friday 6/23/17 in 240 BHC, 11am. Free and open to the public.

Summer 2017 performances (2/2)

IYWP/ICPL Future Writing Final Performance: Friday 6/30/17 in 105MLH, 10:30am. Free and open to the public.

Fall 2017 performance

"Engineering Morality." Saturday 10/7/17, 2pm (with a brief Q&A after the show) in Theatre B, Theatre Bldg

Course information can be found at CS:1000:0001 First-Year Seminar A Synthetic Performance: Adventures in Robot Theatre

Spring 2019 performance

Exploring cozmos: projects from CS:3980/4980 Intro to Robotics

All are welcome at this Exploring cozmos: projects from CS:3980/4980 Intro to Robotics

May 8, 2019 - 12:30pm to 2:30pm

C31 PC

Fall 2019 performance

Hancher’s Stanley Café! Science on Tap "Robot Theater"

November 14, 2019 - 5:30pm to 6:30pm

History on Tap: Humanoid Robot Takeover (Postponed due COVID-19)

April 8, 2020 - 6:30 PM

Kalona Brewing Company

Upcoming Events


Contact Denise Szecsei for more information. Prof. Szescei is also a member of the CS Department's Speaker Bureau.


In the News | On the Web

Robots take the stage at Hancher Auditorium (11/14/2019)

A Robotic Performance? — St Ambrose University News & Events (4/4/2017)

Summer 2016 Newsletter of the National Association for Gifted Children (11/20/2016): "In the course Robot Theater, students produced skits that culminated in a variety show with Nao robots as the lead actors. To prepare the robots for their performance, students learned about voice recognition, programming robot body movement, and robot communication." p. 8

Robot Theatre: Balancing gender parity in STEM participation through theatre… and Robots — Santa Cruz Tech Beat (7/14/2016)

First-year seminars foster success — IowaNow (10/21/2015)

Are we Dee, too? — The Daily Iowan - 80 hours (10/1/2015)

UI adds robotics program for girls — The Daily Iowan (12/2/2014)

I, Robot — Iowa Alumni Magazine (8/2014)

UI Students Program Robots to Dance — KCRG-TV9 (5/14/2014)

Rug-cutting robots — IowaNow (2/24/2014)

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Narrative content adapted from Howe, Kathryn. "I, Robot." Iowa Alumni Magazine - August 2014. University of Iowa Alumni Association, Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.