Make it Digital: Make a dancing, drawing robot

On the 12th September we were lucky enough to have internationally renowned visual artist Paul Granjon join us with a group of 12 artists and educators in Abergavenny to make dancing, drawing Doodlebots. The theme of the day was Make it Digital, aiming to provide teachers with techniques to bring into the classroom that are relevant to current developments in visual art in Wales and beyond, and in-line with the Welsh Government Digital Competence Framework.

Paul began the session with a short talk about his work and inspirations, commencing with his hilarious Fluffy Tamagotchi video. Paul mentioned Stelarc, the infamous Australian artist who explores the ways technology can augment his body and whose work has predicted recent technological innovations to assist those with disabilities. Having recently become a father, Paul has become increasingly interested in the conflict between the natural world and technology, and how our use of technology is bringing about our destruction. Among other things this has led him to explore alternative energy sources for his robots, including batteries made from mud.

Paul wants us to look for potential in the items we discard, pointing out that many of the items used to construct the Doodlebot can be found in recycle bins. For example broken hard drives or printers contain motors, the body of the robot is a food container, and the switch that controls the robot is a small block of wood and a paper clip. The simplicity of the Doodlebot means that anyone can make it with limited tools, but we were still required to learn some new skills, including soldering wires onto motors, Paul assuring us that there is nothing dangerous about soldering. At the end of the morning session everyone gathered their robots and we created a group drawing, when everyone activated their switch, a distinctive drone rang out as the motors whirred and the felt-tip pens scratched and hopped across the surface of the paper. We were impressed by the variety of marks our Doodlebots created, commenting that some areas had the appearance of maps.

The afternoon session had a different feel as we delved into programming using the BBC Micro:bit. The Micro:bit can be programmed via the internet, and although simple to understand, it can reproduce a wide range of actions. To help us understand the Micro:bit Paul showed us how to program the grid of LEDs to show a happy or sad face giving our robots basic emotions. This led to our groups programming their Doodlebots to play music, change expression when shaken, and control each other with radio signals.

It was an engaging day with a varied group of people, many teachers commenting that they will make robots in the classroom to reinforce electronics learning and introduce programming. Sharon Phillips found the day “really informative and fun”, Michelle Ward “enjoyed the hands on approach” and Coral Houtman said the facilitators were “very helpful”. A dancer, Fran Higginson wants to build robots to “work with dancers on movement interaction”.

More information about Paul’s work at zprod.

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