For Teen Tech Week, an annual celebration of teens and technology in libraries that only librarians who work with teens know of, I had the idea to visit as many school libraries as possible to paint with robots. We already had spheros: little waterproof robots that can be controlled using an iPad. I just needed paint, large surfaces to paint on, and an arena to keep the spheros contained. All of this needed to fit into the back of my Toyota Prius.
I purchased acrylic paints because they’re budget-friendly and easy to work with. For the canvas, I found 60″ x 40″ sheets of white foam board that just fit in my car.
Foam board is great for displays since it can be suspended from wire or leaned against a wall. I constructed the arena from a cardboard box and duct tape, using the bottom box flaps as a base for the foam board to lay on. A canvas tarp went under the cardboard as an extra layer of protection for the carpet. The tarp also came in handy as a sling to carry the collapsible, fold-able arena to and fro.
Five schools took me up on my offer of using technology to create a collaborative piece of abstract art. I visited the library at each school, mostly during the busy lunch periods. A few teachers brought classes in to participate, but most students came on their own. I also held a program here at the library for any teen who wanted to come.
Why would I do this? Besides fostering collaboration and experimentation, it sparked conversations about different painting techniques and artists, especially Jackson Pollock. Would I do it again? 100% yes. The teens loved it! Phrases I heard over and over again include, “This is so mesmerizing,” “This is the most fun I’ve had in ____,” “I should be doing homework right now,” “I want one,” and “When are you doing this again?”
Here are a few things I learned over the course of six painting sessions, in no particular order.
- Go easy with the paint. Large blobs of red, blue and yellow all squirted out at the same time are going to result in muddy browns and blacks. Once the mud has dried, bright fresh blobs can be layered on top; this method produces dark, heavy paintings. For light, airy works stick to small blobs of 1-2 colors at a time, and let these dry before adding more color. That said, go ahead and squirt the paint directly on to the foam board. Maneuvering a Sphero through a new paint blob is very satisfying.
- Dry and flip. I laid our dark, heavily-layered painting flat to dry on a Friday and found on Monday that it had curled upward. I flipped it over, weighed it down, and left it overnight to take out the curl. It worked … somewhat. Flipping it earlier would have reduced the curling. Lighter layers of paint should also curl less.
- Stagger the Spheros. We had 5 robots to work with. They can go for 1-2 hours before needing to recharge. Most painting sessions lasted 2-3 hours. I typically started with 3 spheros, adding the others as the first bunch began to run out of charge. Recharging takes 2-3 hours.
- Encourage Experimentation. What if we mask off certain areas of the foam board? What if we put paint on a separate piece of paper instead of directly on the board? What if I make the Sphero dance on top of a paint blob?
- Foster Collaboration. Discussions took place about where to add paint blobs, how to best enhance what was already on the canvas, where to spread the paint, and even what direction to move the Spheros. For example, one group added yellow to one corner to represent the sun, and then worked together to spread its rays. Another group synced up their movements so that their Spheros rolled together around the canvas.
- Teens Teach Each Other. After a quick demonstration, I handed the iPads over to the teen participants. They would pass the iPads around, showing each other how to do tricks. They watched each other, critiquing each other’s skills and offering assistance with things like calibrating the gyroscope.
- Clean-Up Was Easy. No paint made it onto the carpet. Spheros are waterproof, but covering them made clean-up easier. I covered two spheros with textured nubbies, and the others in Press ‘N Seal wrap. Wipes took most of the paint off the nubbies, and the rest came off with water. Wipes also cleaned paint-speckled hands.