Teaching Young Artists to Design Robots

You've heard about programs that try to teach science and math-oriented youth to build robots to increase their understanding of science and engineering. But how do you reach the kids who are interested in the arts or the humanities? How do you give them a healthy interest in science and show them how they can use the sciences as a launch pad for their artistic endeavors?

Carl DiSalvo and Jonathan Lukens at Georgia Tech are working with Youth Art Connection and the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta to teach middle school and high school students interested in the arts and humanities how they can use their skills to create innovative uses of technology, not just build the technology.

"You can teach someone to build a film camera, but that's different from teaching people how to use it and how to make art with it," said DiSalvo, assistant professor of Digital Media at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech.

"There are plenty of great technology education programs for science and engineering, but less for the arts. Why do we have to assume all kids should want to be engaged with technology as engineers or scientists? Maybe they want to be new media artists or designers," he said.

During week one of the two-week course, students learned about the basics of robotics: sensing, actuation and procedurality. Each day the studio covered a different topic through hands on activities. For example, on day two the students explored downtown Atlanta with handheld environmental sensors. This taught them how the sensors on a robot might be used to distinguish between different spaces in the city and what kinds of environmental conditions a robotic piece of artwork might be able to detect and respond to. This basic technical knowledge provided the basis for brainstorming of robotic art and design projects.

During week two they built robotic sculptures and prototypes. They used what they learned about robotics in week one and merged it with their interest in art and design to produce robotic sculptures and prototypes of future robotic devices.

"We think the arts provide a useful approach to interpreting technology," said DiSalvo. "We are interested in how can we use the arts and humanities to increase public understanding of technology - to help people, youth especially, to be more creative, critical and innovative. That's what we're interested in, getting the kids to imagine what could be."

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the world's premier research universities. Ranked seventh among U.S. News & World Report's top public universities and the eighth best engineering and information technology university in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, Georgia Tech’s more than 20,000 students are enrolled in its Colleges of Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Management and Sciences. Tech is among the nation's top producers of women and minority engineers. The Institute offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students and is home to more than 100 interdisciplinary units plus the Georgia Tech Research Institute.