About Our Project

Overview: Our robot theater summer project is a series of girl-focused summer programs designed to teach computational thinking and computer science to elementary through high school students. We will introduce the subject matter in the context of the performing arts—programming humanoid robots to perform theatrical skits. By integrating the arts and the sciences, we are developing innovative ways to encourage girls with high math and verbal abilities to engage in computer science and technology-related fields. With traditional education methods, these talented girls are likely to bypass STEM fields completely.  Our elementary, middle, and high school programs where students will work collaboratively to program NAO humanoid robots (manufactured by Aldebaran Robotics), write theatrical scripts that the robots perform, and create a staged performance in front of a live audience.  Project goals for students include:

  • building pivotal friendships,
  • developing a passion for computer science,
  • learning algorithmic thinking,
  • advancing problem-solving skills,
  • building confidence in technical abilities,
  • acquiring a sense of belonging, and
  • understanding the crucial role of creativity in the fields of technology and computer science.

Additional project goals are to provide unique teaching and mentoring experiences for postsecondary computer science, engineering, theater, and education students to promote change in the culture of computer science education and the profession.

Pilot Program #1 (Summer 2015): In partnership with the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, and with support from the American Association of University Women (through a community action grant), we offered a two-week half-day summer program involving robot theater for twelve 5th and 6th grade girls. The focus of this program was on learning how to program NAO robots to perform short theatrical skits. This summer program incorporated language arts, performing arts and computer science; the girls wrote the content, performed alongside the robots, and put together a final presentation for their families and participants in other Belin-Blank summer programs. After the final presentation, the girls answered questions from the audience about their experiences working with the robots.

Pilot Program #2 (Summer 2016): Working again with the Belin-Blank Center, we offered a one-week residential program for middle school students. The design of this program included morning classes in theater arts and playwriting, and afternoon classes involving programming the robots. The students learned about the art of storytelling, and used the robots as performers to tell their stories. The program was mixed-gender, with eight girls and five boys participating.

Workshops (Summer 2016): Building on the success of the first two pilot programs offered in Iowa City, we will be taking the robots on the road to two new communities: Santa Cruz, CA and Portland, OR.  In each community we will be holding several three-hour workshops for professionals in the technology industry, performing artists, educators (K-12 teachers and university faculty), parents, post-secondary students and advanced high school students to work with the robots. We hope that participants in these workshops will be inspired to become more involved in this project. These workshops will be held in August, 2016. Details can be found at https://www.cs.uiowa.edu/resources/robot-theater-workshops.

Future Plans (Summer 2017): We intend to offer three robot theater summer programs in each of the three communities in Summer 2017 (Iowa City, IA, Santa Cruz, CA, and Portland, OR). Our goal is to encourage girls to participate in these programs, and we will promote these programs as being girl-focused, and will actively recruit women to staff the programs and serve as role models for participants. We will spend two weeks in each community, and offer the following three programs over this two-week period:

  • A two-week half-day program for 5th and 6th grade students to learn to program the robots to perform skits and tell stories, following the structure of the first pilot program for elementary school students
  • Week 1: A one-week, full-day program for high school students, following the structure of the second pilot program for older students
    • Half of the day is spent focusing on the performing arts, storytelling and playwriting (while the elementary school program is taking place)
    • Half of the day is spent programming the robots to perform
  • Week 2: A one-week, full-day program for middle school students, following the structure of the second pilot program for older students
    • Half of the day is spent focusing on the performing arts, storytelling and playwriting (while the elementary school program is taking place)
    • Half of the day is spent programming the robots to perform
    • Some of the high school students from the first week will be invited to work with and mentor some of the middle school students as they are learning to program the robots

Additional Details: See the University of Iowa Computer Science Department webpage for more details about this project (https://www.cs.uiowa.edu/resources/ui-cs-performing-robots) Videos of robot theater performances are posted on YouTube (we have two channels: “UICS Department” and “UICS Robots”). Our WordPress blog has details about the summer programs and the first-year seminars offered to UI students (https://robottheater.wordpress.com/). For more information, contact Denise Szecsei (denise-szecsei@uiowa.edu)

We need YOU to get involved: There are many ways to help our project succeed:

  • Spread the word!
    • Share our YouTube videos and contact information with
      • people in the community who might be interested in this project,
      • help identify students who might be interested in enrolling in our programs
      • help identify community members who might be interested in helping us run our programs
    • Attend our live performances
      • Each of our programs end with a live performance, and having an audience to perform for is definitely appreciated
    • Attend one of our workshops to learn how to program the robots, and consider volunteering to help us run the programs
      • Enrollment in our programs is limited by the number of robots that we have as well as the number of people we have to staff the programs. Volunteering helps us reduce the cost to participate in these programs and enables us to enroll more students in each program.
    • Make a financial contribution to sponsor a student’s participation in this project
      • Participating in this type of project can be a life-changing experience. We are deeply committed to serving underrepresented groups and are working to minimize the cost of enrollment. Being able to provide need-based scholarships would enable students to enroll in our programs regardless of their ability to pay
    • Make a financial contribution to help us purchase and maintain our robots
      • In order for students to get the most out of this experience, our programs are structured so that two students work with one robot and one staff member when they are programming the robots. We currently have six NAO robots available for this project.
      • Each NAO robot costs $9500, and the robots wear out after extensive use. Raising the funds to purchase one additional robot would enable us to enroll 18 additional students (6 in each community) each year

This is a community-inspired project, and your involvement matters to us. Every contribution of time and/or financial support, regardless of size, will help our project succeed!  Feel free to contact us for more details on how to get involved.


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