Romeo and Juliet Robots

I recently spoke with a friend who owns a company that employs many programmers and engineers. He complained that while all of them are technically proficient, few are capable of being creative within their proficiency, and even less are capable of being creative beyond their area of proficiency. This project requires all students to be creative in areas beyond their proficiencies, yet provides multiple opportunities for success to students struggling with traditional academic tasks.


Mercutiobot will insult and threaten you


This project grew out a collaboration with Ann McCormack, a Theatre teacher with whom I work closely at Brooklyn International. We divided the task of reading Shakespeare's play between her Theatre class and my English class, using a combination of a shortened, slightly simplified version of the text prepared by Ann, as well as chunks from the original text. While reading Shakespeare with English language learners may seem daunting, the copious resources available (including films, websites, translated texts, graphic novels, and books about Shakespeare himself) make him an ideal choice for building a flexible, differentiated curriculum.


The culminating task in Ann's class was to create a short film inspired by the play. In my class, students designed and constructed either interactive robotic characters or animatronic puppets which performed scenes from the play. Before the groups began creating their films and robots, they wrote, as individuals, adaptations or re-imaginings of their favorite part of the play. This had two benefits: 1) It helped students with limited language skills to work deeply with the text, building both familiarity and a sense of ownership; 2) these pieces of writing could become the basis for the students' films and robots.


To construct the robots we used Hummingbird Robotics Kits (thanks to Digital Ready for the funding). I chose these kits because they may be programmed using Scratch, with which my students were already familiar. This is one of my central principles of working with technology in the classroom: Don't introduce too many unfamiliar tasks at the same time. This would be the first time my students would be using microcontrollers to control objects of their own design. They had previously built Arduino drum machines as part of a collaboration with John Derian, Brooklyn International Science Teacher, and Mark Kleback from the Beam Center, but all the drum machines had similar wiring and programs. I didn't want to also introduce a new programming language or interface. The Hummingbirds were ideal for this application.


Tybalt Victorious


Students used this document to guide them through the process. I make activity guides with my students rather than for them, using their input to clearly lay out the steps for a successful project. I also built some examples of how one could use servos and motors to create different types of movement for the puppets. While building their robots, they were careful to take photos and video of the important steps in their work. When they finished their robots, they made short films documenting the process. 

I introduced this project by stating, “I don’t think anyone has ever done a project like this before. You might be the first in the world to do something like this.” This may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but it made them feel significant. Then I told them, “You’re going to have designs that don’t work. Then you’ll fix the design and it still won’t work. But when you finally get it right… it will feel amazing!” This was not an exaggeration. This type of project builds tolerance for setbacks and failure. A single type of ingenuity is not sufficient. Rather, programmers, engineers, writers, actors, artists, leaders are all required to complete a Romeo and Juliet Robot!