In early February 2020, I had the privilege of attending the TCEA Convention in Austin. This is a conference put on by Texas educational professionals, teachers, trainers, media specialists, and school librarians all of whom love to employ technology in fun and innovative ways for their students. You can really feel the love there. TCEA presenters and attendees don’t employ tech because their boss or school district said they should, but rather because they unabashedly enjoy new technology and want to share their enthusiasm with their students, knowing that modelling that joy and getting it into young people’s hands are the keys to their future success. These are my kinds of folks.
At TCEA, there were a lot of great presentations from these tech-savvy teaching superstars, ones that showcased the newest, most buzzworthy educational tools, tips, and tricks. I think my favorite program of the whole conference though wasn’t about a new piece of software or fancy gadget. It didn’t talk about VR, AR, AI, or any other two-letter acronym. It was held in a small room, not heavily attended, on one of the first days of the conference and first thing in the morning. It described an idea out of Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas called Humanitronics, and I think it’s one of the most clever ideas for STEAM programing I’ve ever heard of. One day soon I hope we can be at a place where more schools and libraries can duplicate or draw inspiration from it.
Today’s highlight: Humanitronics
When I walked into the conference room that morning at TCEA, this is what I saw at the front:
Puppets. Propped up within a tiny decorated stage. Then a switch was flicked, and they were turned on.
The puppets began to move on their own, their mouths opening and closing in sync to the recorded voices of middle school kids acting out a skit featuring famous historical persons they’d researched in their seventh grade Humanities class. The students weren’t even there. They basically made robots perform their school assignment for them. Definitely a cool trick, but it’s what went into its creation that is, as I would soon learn, where the real magic resides.
And this magic has been dubbed, “Humanitronics”. As presenter Abbie Cornelius, computer science teacher and STEAM specialist at Trinity Valley School, explained:
Humanitronics = Humanities + Animation + Electronics
This is, of course, a bit of word play referring to animatronics. If you’re not familiar with the term, perhaps you recognize this little guy, who happened to have captured many folks’ hearts right at the time I attended TCEA:
It’s Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian tv series. This immensely popular creature was created and performed using mostly animatronics puppetry. Although modern special effects in television and film rely heavily these days on computer generated imagery and less on practical effects, the art of animatronics is far from dead – as Baby Yoda’s adorable charms can attest. You can also find animatronics at theme parks such as Disneyland with their ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride, for example. And there are animatronics programs in higher ed., as well as classes taught in K-12 schools.
But Humanitronics is something special. The original visionary for the project was Dr. Paul Dietz, a former Disney Imagineer and Microsoft Researcher. He brought the project to Trinity Valley School in 2014, conducting a hands-on summer workshop for high school students. In collaboration with computer science teacher, Dr. Ginger Alford, the high school team traveled to Maker Faires in both Seattle and New York presenting their first animatronics project. The project continued to develop in other forms, but the original animatronics kits sat idle and unused, collecting dust in a closet at the school. This is when Middle School STEAM teacher Abbie Cornelius noticed something.
For the last several years, the seventh grade humanities teachers, Dan Betsill and Tina Harper, were teaching literature and history through a final class project where their students would script conversations between the characters they learned about. They’d then perform the skits as a puppet show using miniature sets they designed and decorated themselves. It was a great idea, giving students a chance to be creative and combine several humanities disciplines, such as playwriting, performance, and art.
Cornelius saw she could take it to the next level. She could leverage this existing humanities project and combine it with the animatronics kits. And thus, Humanitronics was born!
Teaming up with the humanities teachers, as well as Dr. Ginger Alford, SMU professor of computer science, Cornelius crafted a year-long program for seventh graders to continue their humanities puppet show project but now with integrated STEM skills.
(Normally, we see folks finding ways to put the A (Art) into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) to make STEAM – but this is the reverse: adding the STEM to the Art.)
Besides what they are already getting in their humanities classes studying history and literature, in Humanitronics, they learn script writing and voice acting. They next learn how to use audio recording equipment and editing software, then metalwork and basic engineering and design skills while they fashion their puppet frames.
They learn about wiring and circuitry (electrical engineering) to control the servo motors in their animatronics.
They design, build, and decorate their sets, learning woodworking and interior design
They get experience with coding and robotics as they record their lip-synced puppetry performance within their set.
Among many roles, they get to be performers, engineers, and writers. Every student tries all of the skills, with the chance to engage deeper with the ones that most interest them.
Fun Fact: They took the students to the local Benbrook Public Library to use their laser cutters – I love that!
One coda to the successful program: After the recorded robot puppet shows were finished during the 2018 year, Cornelius and the team took the project out to the larger community. At the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the students played live performances, explained the process, and answered questions from museum guests. They even gave hands-on demos with the puppets, circuitry and servo motor programming.
Honestly, I can’t think of a more well-rounded STEAM project that exposes the students to so many practical disciplines. Humanitronics for the win!
Special thanks to Abbie Cornelius, who shared with me a promotional video of the project. It’s the source of the animated gifs included in this post.