Art + Robotics = a New Way to Teach Computer Science

Holly Yanco

A professor who helped create an Artbotics program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell visited Rhode Island College earlier this week to explain how her program uses a combination of art and robotics to help generate student interest in computer science.

Holly Yanco, a professor in the Computer Science Department at UMass-Lowell, said the goal is to have students learn how to program computers to create interactive artistic pieces with robotic elements, thus combining the disciplines of art, computer science and robotics.

She presented several examples of the students’ interactive artwork to about 50 people, including many RIC students, at the Faculty Center on Wednesday, as part of Computer Science Education Week.

Yanco, who founded the Robotics Lab at UMass Lowell, co-developed the Artbotics program about six years ago.  It’s available for all grade levels, but is designed primarily for students in middle school, high school and college.

Students usually work in groups on their art projects, a setup that Yanco noted defies the myth that computer programmers are loners working in isolation. Each student must devote equal time to both the art and computer components of the project, for a 50-50 ratio. At the end of the session, students display their works in a museum-type show.

Yanco said a show that’s currently on display at the 119 Gallery in Lowell (through Dec. 13) features the works of students required to incorporate ping-pong balls into their art projects, so the exhibit includes about 5,000 ping-pong balls.

Other projects include a guitar that plays itself; a wall of colorful masks that have moving facial features when light shines on them; toy-sized motorized cars equipped with pencils and programmed to draw repetitive patterns on paper; hands made of wire that clap on command; and flowers that light up and wave their leaves when a person approaches.

Yanco said more than 80 students in Lowell have studied Artbotics in after-school, summer programs and special sessions since the program began six years ago. A session typically runs for 10 or 12 weeks, meeting twice a week. Workshops also are available for educators, including parents who home-school their children.

She recently developed a four-credit course at UMass Lowell for arts and computer science majors. She also works closely with Lowell High School and is currently writing a book about Artbotics.

Ann Moskol, RIC professor of math and computer science and president of the Computer Science Teachers Association of Rhode Island (CSTA), who arranged Yanco’s lecture at RIC, asked about the chances of making Artbotics a regular part of the school curriculum nationwide.

Yanco said some schools, including the Del Mar High School in San Jose, Calif., have adopted an Artbotics curriculum. But it hasn’t been widely adopted, which she said was “frustrating” because students may be exposed to Artotics in high school and not use it again until college.

“It would be so much better to have this through the schools,” Moskol said, citing this concern as one reason the state chapter of CSTA was created.

Computer Science Education Week is observed each year in the days before Dec. 9, which is the birthday of the late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a visionary in the world of computer science. He was born on Dec. 9, 1906.

Yanco’s presentation was funded by the Rhode Island College Committee on College Lectures.  Joan Dagle, associate dean, welcomed Yanco to RIC on behalf of Earl Simson, dean of arts and sciences.