We offer first-year seminars in robot theater, as well as project-based classes related to using NAO robots in the performing arts. Students with experience working with the robots can then go on to serve as mentors, role models, and assistants in outreach activities, weekend workshops, and summer programs. A key factor contributing to the underrepresentation of women in computer science and engineering is stereotypes.. Misconceptions create barriers that dissuade students from taking classes in STEM fields and considering STEM careers. Enabling girls to get hands-on experience programming humanoid robots, and incorporating their work into the performing arts, creates an environment where some of these myths and stereotypes can be debunked.
With financial support provided by an American Association of University Women (AAUW) Community Action Grant, we were able to offer an initial summer program to elementary school girls. Studies have shown that girls who do not believe that they have characteristics in common with computer scientists and engineers tend to be more reluctant to enter those professions. In order to address this issue, the program staff was comprised of an interdisciplinary team of women. We believe that as a result of this staffing decision, we were able to broaden participants' perspective, reinforce the idea that women are computer scientists and engineers, and help the students visualize a possible future as a STEM professional.
The Summer 2016 Robot Theater JSI program was team-taught by Denise Szecsei and Jason Buehrer. Jason is a University of Iowa alumnus with degrees and experience in theater and playwriting. Jason started working with the NAO robots as a student in the Robot Theater classes offered at the University of Iowa. The JSI summer program is a one-week residential program for middle school students, and is offered by the Belin-Blank Center. The Robot Theater program consisted of daily writing prompts, theatre games, dedicated in-class writing time, and programming workshops. The students wrote several short monologues and scenes and then worked together to program the robots to perform. The program ended with a final performance for family and friends.
We will continue to teach classes involving Robot Theater to University of Iowa students, participate in community outreach programs, and offer weekend workshops and summer programs for elementary, middle and high school students. We will also continue to visit local schools to give performances and programming presentations. We are working with communities in Santa Cruz, CA and Portland, OR to build a Robot Theater community. We traveled to these two communities in August, 2016 to give a series of 3-hour workshops to students, faculty and theater professionals. These initial workshops provided a hands-on introduction to the robots. We intend to develop Robot Theater summer programs in these two areas, and the workshops were part of our initial staff recruitment process.