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Alternate reality game sparks interest in informal science learning.

Dr. Susan Rauchwerk, right, leads CYP staff through an activity. Photo courtesy Lesley University.
Dr. Susan Rauchwerk, right, leads CYP staff through an activity. Photo courtesy of Lesley University.

In addition to the summer 2021 Art, A.I. & Robotics course at Somerville High School, the Lesley STEAM team worked with Cambridge Youth Programs or CYP staff on an alternate reality game or ARG. Most educational ARGs consist of scenarios that lead participants to collaboratively solve puzzles and accomplish activities. LSTEAM used this social learning format as a professional development opportunity for CYP.

CYP staff watch Stacy and The Magic Water Bottle to kick off the event. Photo courtesy of Lesley University.
CYP staff watch “Stacy and The Magic Water Bottle” to kick off the event. Photo courtesy of Lesley University.

One of the first challenges that CYP staff had to address as part of their summer training was how to help ‘Stacy’ find a magical water bottle with healing powers. Stacy was a fictional character in a short video created by Tessa Johnson that provided clues to tasks CYP staff would later accomplish to play the ARG. 

To continue the water theme, CYP met Alexander Goldowsky and played the part of water molecules in a large group activity. Alexander also led a heat mapping activity. Susan Rauchwerk led CYP staff through an activity that illustrated the flow of watersheds. Nicole Weber helped participants make bubble wands using twigs and other materials. Laura Kathrein led them in an activity to express the movement of water through dance. Participants created bubble art with Nettrice Gaskins and Sue Cusack using recycled bottles and they explored hydro-dipping. 
Materials used for the bubble wand activity, plus a QR code.
Materials used for the bubble wand activity, plus a QR code.
Participants made bubble wands using twigs and other materials.
Participants made bubble wands using twigs and other materials.

The purpose of the Replenish ARG was to encourage CYP staff to think outside the box and give them ideas they could do with their young people outside. By expanding their knowledge about water through gameplay, they had space to go in directions that may never have been thought of before.

The unique summer staff training event was the culmination of weeks-long alternate reality game planning to encourage people to work collaboratively, make use of their science knowledge, and learn the kind of guided inquiry at the heart of LSTEAM’s core values.

Set in a future world where summers are hotter because of climate change, the Replenish ARG provided clues and puzzles via online videos and a variety of STEAM activities to help CYP staff come up with new ideas for their summer youth programs. This staff training (as a game) aimed to get people thinking outside of their smaller, sometimes more insular, worlds and into new, interdisciplinary modes.

Making an Alternate Reality 

ARGs use real life as a stage to tell an interactive story. The first puzzle in any ARG is what is referred to as “The Rabbit Hole”. Like Alice in Wonderland, this is the first step into the fictional universe of the game. The Replenish ARG rabbit hole was a fake BBC new article about the climate. CYP staff uncovered the rest of the Replenish narrative scattered across different activity areas outside of the Frisoli Youth Center in Cambridge, MA.

The rabbit hole for the ARG was a fake news web page.
The rabbit hole for the ARG was a fake news web page.

During the event, groups were divided by CYP program (approximately 6-10 people per group) and they rotated through five activities, then everyone got together to play a water cycle simulation activity. For each round, the groups met a Lesley STEAM member at their respective project tables to complete a task that also included a QR code that, when scanned, showed one of five posters with a missing word they had to correctly guess before moving on to the next project. Once they completed all of the projects (and got all of the words) they solved the puzzle by rearranging the missing words to complete a slogan.

By scanning QR codes at each activity station, participants got clues to solve.
By scanning QR codes at each activity station, participants got clues to solve.
Participants used the QR clues to spell out the slogan and win the game.
Participants used the QR clues to spell out the slogan and win the game.

Each group also got a ring to be used in a ring toss, to win the prize: a magic water bottle.

Stay tuned for more discussion about the ARG stations and activities.

The gathering was funded as part of biotech company Biogen’s STAR Initiative (science teacher support, access and resources).

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Summer Art, AI & Robotics class captures imaginations in Somerville

SHS students work on basic robot kits.
SHS students work on their basic robot kits.

Sixteen Somerville High School (SHS) students from diverse backgrounds came together to explore the combination of art, storytelling, artificial intelligence (A.I.), and robotics. Their teachers worked with Lesley STEAM to weave this content together with relevant STEAM and CTE standards and learning objectives. The final product was a hybrid course that took place in the High School’s new FabLab, as well as online with Lesley University’s College of Art and Design faculty, a comic and graphic novel artist. They earned four Lesley college credits that were matched by 2.5 math and 2.5 art credits from SHS. Many of the skills they learned can be applied to other classes they can take during the school year such as math, language arts, art, and computer science.

Inspired by developments in artificial intelligence such as machine learning and A.I. sensing, the SHS/LSTEAM team facilitated several activities such as learning Scratch programming language, building basic robots, then students gained fine arts and storytelling skills from drawing comics. Class activities culminated in a capstone “artbot” project. The main objectives of the class were for students to:

  • Show their understanding of storytelling by animating a character using craft material & servos.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of robotics by building robots that alter the environment through art.
  • Show their understanding of the iterative design process by rebuilding/repurposing their robot for new ends.

Students began the class by learning about artists who explore human-machine collaboration and interaction such as Soughwen Chung and Stephanie Dinkins. They learned about Joy Buolamwini, a coder who uses art and research to illuminate the social implications of artificial intelligence. 

Joy Buolamwini talks about racial bias in AI.
Joy Buolamwini talks about racial bias in AI. © TED

During the first two weeks, students learned how to use design thinking based on a culturally relevant making model from LSTEAM staff. The model included “design cyphers”, concept mapping, and “collaborative peer reviews.” They learned about the fundamentals of computer programming with Scratch, as well as how to build and program robots to imitate human creative expression. Later, they used an A.I. sensing extension in Scratch to enable their robots to respond and react to human movement.

During the third week, students worked with their peers, teachers and LSTEAM staff to synthesize what they learned in art and storytelling with their A.I. robot builds. In the morning, they took “Comics and the Graphic Novel” online with Barrington Edwards, summer faculty from Lesley University’s College of Art and Design; and in the afternoon, they met at the FabLab to engage in tasks that allowed them to combine clearly and coherently different ideas from visual storytelling with their physical robot prototypes. These activities culminated in student presentations synthesizing their work at the end of Friday class.

SHS student capstone artbot project.
This SHS student capstone “artbot” project is a Kraken monster that paints.

For the last and final week, students worked independently on their capstone projects, with support from the SHS/LSTEAM team. Students participated in collaborative peer reviews and gallery walks to get feedback from their peers, school teachers and administrators, and outside experts. On the last day each individual student or small group of students presented their final projects to the general school community.

Making the Artbots

For this class, students were tasked with designing, programming, and prototyping, and presenting their artbots, which are robots that respond to people and make art. They created a short comic about how to make an artbot and presented them during class. To build the artbot students were given design constraints such as: 

  • Your artbot can move freely or be attached to an object or a person
  • Your artbot must generate or help users to make art 
  • Your artbot must convey a story or a message (ex. through gesture)
  • You are encouraged to use pose detection / pose estimation 
  • You are encouraged to use sensors or other peripherals in your robot design
  • You must design and fabricate your own chassis that can include single or multiple motors/servos, wheels, or other moving parts

Pose estimation is a computer vision technique that predicts and tracks the location of a person or object. This is done by looking at a combination of the pose and the orientation of a given person or object. Students learned how to add code modules and extensions to Scratch that detect human movement using the computer’s in-board (web) camera. This builds on the Face Sensing block that uses machine learning that is trained to see faces.

Examples of the students’ final ‘artbots’ include “Cube”, a robot that is controlled by two mini-computers called BBC Micro:bits; “The Crab” that moves left, right, forward, and backward using servos motors; a “Boatman Painter” bot that actually paints; a “Kraken” bot that draws; a “Ladybug” bot that realizes how beautiful the sunshine is and draws sun symbols on paper; and a Butterfly bot that collaborates with humans to draw colorful pictures. Two students created a skateboarding “Ninja Turtle” that used music as the art form to define its movement. And finally, one student created their version of the “Scratch cat” as a motion-sensing A.I. robot that uses peoples’ body movements to draw.

To learn more, check out the students’ final artbots:

This course was made possible through the support of BiogenSTAR, Somerville High School, Lesley University College of Art and Design, and the City of Somerville.