The performing robots classes are interdisciplinary, inquiry-guided courses in which students collaborate in groups to program robots to perform original creative content. The classes culminate in live, public performances in which the robots perform choreographed dances, plays, and other original pieces. The class is part of a larger intellectual conversation about interdisciplinarity and more specifically the relationship between the arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields, with some scholars advocating an integration of the arts through a new acronym, STEAM. Professor Szecsei taught the original performing robots classes primarily to juniors and seniors, but she has also taught it as a First Year Seminar.

In 2013 George de la Peña (Dance) and Alberto Segre (Computer Science) won an Innovations in Teaching With Technology Award (ITTA) grant from The University of Iowa Academic Technologies Advisory Council that helped to fund the purchase of robots for the course. Professor Szecsei (Computer Science and Mathematics) collaborated with various other faculty members in the development and facilitation of the course. Dance instructor Charlotte Adams helped students to contemplate how robots that are incapable of exhibiting facial expressions could use posture and body movement to show emotion. Theatre professor Bryon Winn explained important aspects of monologue delivery and the process of trying out for a theatrical production. Other colleagues from Computer Sciences, Theatre, and Dance attended performances to provide constructive feedback about the pieces the students create. 

The class benefits students in a number of ways:

  • Computer science students got practical experience translating their disciplinary knowledge for non-experts, a skill that is crucial in fields that work with clients. For example, the computer science students figured out that choreography which required repetitive movements lasting an unspecified amount of time could be accomplished through a “for-loop,” and they worked with dance students to create that programming.   
  • Performing arts students gained perspective on their fields. The robots lack facial expression, so students created other ways of performing emotion. Applying algorithmic thinking to deconstructing a dance move in order to program a robot to do it, gave dance students a better understanding of movement.
  • Collaborative work allows students to learn from their peers. Often fellow novices are better able to explain common misconceptions or other disciplinary bottlenecks than are experts in a field. 
  • Professor Szecsei has found that the class helps students to understand that artistic creativity and problem-solving skills are closely linked, and that connection promotes confidence in students from supposedly widely divergent fields.