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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.

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6th grade Somerville students deepen their geology knowledge with campus visit

6th grade students are creating a base layer of playdough to model their fossil record. They are flattening playdough down onto an index card and using screw drivers to mold their rock formation.
Students choose an era and begin their base layers of rock.

Lesley STEAM Learning Lab and the Science in Education team welcomed all 6th grade students from the Argenziano and East Somerville Community Schools (Somerville Public Schools) for an interactive field trip in November. The trip was generated out of the collaborative curriculum design as part of Lesley’s Biogen grant supporting both Cambridge and Somerville school districts with STEM integration. Two Somerville science teachers, the STEAM Lab, and Lesley science faculty, Susan Rauchwerk and Nicole Weber, developed an experience that would engage students in expanding their investigation of geologic time and fossil records.

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Summer Compass students dive into design engineering & upcycle challenges at Lesley STEAM

Lesley STEAM Learning Lab hosted just over 100 Lesley Summer Compass students this past week in our makerspace. True to their 2018 theme “Going Green,” campers engaged in a variety of design engineering challenges with a focus on upcycling materials, insects, plants, and alternative modes of transportation.

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Lesley Wonderlab: Bee-Bot mapping project

Wonderlab students engaged in making: using BeeBots, recyclables, and natural materials to design their own forrest pathways
Students from Lesley’s Wonderlab program visited the Lesley Makerspace on October 10th, 2017 to design their own landscapes. Before jumping into making, the group discussed their knowledge of maps and cardinal direction.

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What does sound feel like? What does sound look like?

Contact mic station
First graders at the Kennedy School were recently challenged with the following questions: What does sound feel like? What does sound look like? The Lesley STEAM team worked closely with both first grade teachers at the school to develop activities that would allow students to first and foremost explore and engage with the sounds, sights, and sensations of sound.
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Summer Compass Students Join the Maker Olympics


During their second week of summer, over 150 Lesley Summer Compass students immersed themselves in Olympic themed challenges in the Lesley Makerspace. These eager K-6th grade students experienced a variety of STEAM activities developed around each grade level.
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K-Lo team competes at BPS Robotics Olympics

Three third and fourth grade students from the Kennedy-Longfellow School spent a Saturday in early June participating in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Robotics Olympics. Not only were they amongst the youngest students there, they were also honored to be the only team representing the Cambridge Public Schools.

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Stop Motion Monster Mashing

Fi9780062125941rst grade students explored color mixing in art class by creating their own stop motion animation videos. The stop motion center was just one of six centers set up by K-Lo art teacher Amanda Kilton. The other centers included an overhead projector color transparencies, stamp mixing, tissue paper collage, painting and a color-based book browsing table with titles like “Monsters Love Colors.”


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Kinetic Art & Simple Machines

The Kinetic Sculpture/Simple Machines has been a project-based collaboration between the 5th grade classroom teachers, the art teacher, the Library/Media Specialist and the technology teacher. The project began by the classroom teacher introducing the concept of simple machines during homeroom science blocks. Students documented and explained every day simple machines found in the kitchen: a can opener, knife, pizza cutter, etc. Teachers also set up an engineer “gallery walk” where students walked around the school makerspace and read about over 20 types of engineers. They were then tasked with finding two types of engineering they were interested in and explaining their interest.


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