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How These Pittsburgh-Area Students Are Turning Poetry Into Robotic Theater

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

“A diorama on steroids.”

That's how Susan Mellon describes what she’s doing in her Springdale Junior and Senior High classroom, where students are combining poetry with computer technology and engineering.

“Kids tend to be a little intimidated by poetry, so I thought this would take something they’re intimidated by and don’t like and make it fun,” said Mellon, a gifted support coordinator at the school.

Plenty of emphasis has been placed on the importance of science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields. But English, literature and the arts are a critical part of a comprehensive education, too. This Pittsburgh-area classroom is trying to combine the fields — adding arts to create what's referred to as STEAM.

Mellon’s students work in small groups, putting the finishing touches on their projects: bringing a short published poem to life using robotic components. They craft dioramas, and with a Hummingbird robotics kit they can program movements in the diorama to go along with the poem. The Hummingbird kits include a circuit board that connects to a computer, which controls movements and lights.

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Hummingbird robotics kits introduce students to programming.

This helps the students learn some basic programming, but it also helps them learn poetry, Mellon said.

“Repetition in poetry increases comprehension of the poem, so by building you get this natural repetition," she said. "They’ll have recorded the poem so it’ll run while their robotic actions highlight what’s going on in the poem. That’s another form of repetition. They have to keep referring back to it to make it come alive.”

Students such as Alicia Matthews seem to get that. Her group is working on the Emily Dickinson poem “She Sweeps with Many-Colored Brooms.”

“The whole point of this is that we have to read the poems many times to understand it, so repetition helps get it stuck in our head so we can symbolize it and turn it to life,” Matthews said.

And since each poem is different, the students have to do different things with their robotics kits.

“So our poem is, the brooms represent the many different-colored seasons, so we are making leaves fall and snow fall and lights represent all kinds of springs, like spring symbolizing,” Matthews said.

Introducing Poetry and Programming

For most of these kids, both poetry and programming are new concepts, so Mellon does spend time floating about the classroom, helping the students troubleshoot. The hope is that these projects will stay with the students beyond the time it takes to make the poetry theaters.

“I hope the message sticks like, ‘Oh I really understood my poem,’ so when they see a little bit of poetry on an SAT or PSSA, they’re like, ‘I know if I read this a couple of time, I’ll get this question,’ that’s what I hope they get from this experience,” Mellon said.

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Sue Mellon helps one student with the poetry theater.

And she said there are also students who are struck by the programming and robotics side of things and may pursue more opportunities in STEM, whereas before they might have thought it uninteresting. Mellon said she especially hopes it helps more girls become interested in STEM fields.

“The girl’s not going to ask, ‘I want a robotics kit for Christmas,’ but she might after they play around with it at school,” Mellon said.

But beyond girls, Mellon said she hopes all students find both the robotics and the poetry interesting.

There’s another underlying effort at play though. Mellon is part of a National Science Foundation Study to identify early STEM talent that may not otherwise be noticed and fostered.

“When the parents have more resources, they’re down at CMU doing this summer class, that summer class, so somebody there is going to be able to recognize that early STEM talent,” she said.

But for families who can’t send their kids to summer camps and classes, that early talent could be lost. Mellon said some students in the district who have excelled in STEM have taught fellow students at after-school programs, and efforts are underway to expand that type of program.

Makes Poetry Relatable

The class doing poetry theater is actually Heather Harepko’s 8th grade language arts class. Mellon teaches the robotics – Harepko teaches the poetry.

“What I’ve liked about this project is the fact that students who don’t typically shine in poetry or language arts in general have a chance to do that in a different capacity that makes them proud as well as makes me see them in a different light,” Harepko said.

She said these projects gives her a more comprehensive view of her students, "because not every student is a strong English, language arts, let alone poetry student."

"So seeing them shine in a different way shows me that they are strong in other areas that maybe I hadn’t noticed before,” Harepko said.

Harepko is the one who chooses the poems for the students.

“We do a lot of Dickinson, because it’s very Common Core heavy, which they’ll be tested on later on in their careers,” Harepko said. “We make sure they’re small enough that they can create a box out of them in the four days that they have but also enough meaning and symbolism in there to see if they are getting the poem.”

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A finished robotic poetry theater from a previous class.

Showcasing Their Work

Once students finish their projects, each group has to present it to the class. As with most technical things, there are usually some glitches. Some of the groups had issues with the robotics moving or audio playing at the wrong time, but Mellon gave them time to fix issues, and they were able to try again.

The same robotics kits are being used in other subjects as well. Mellon said her colleagues have used them in health class, where students can build models with lights to highlight certain muscles in the body, and Mellon said they can also be useful for social studies.

“You do country research, and so we’re going to do like famous people, famous structures and interactive maps with robotics kits — that’s new for us,” Mellon said.

The Hummingbird Robotics kit used in Mellon’s room is a spin-off product of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab and sold by BirdBrain Technologies out of Pittsburgh.

Use of the kits along with other technologies is spreading in schools across the U.S. This year hundreds of FinchRobots from BirdBrain technologies are being loaned to schools to help students learn computer programming.