Making his mark: Penn State professor uses scribble-bots to fuse art and science

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A tiny machine powered by a hobby motor and AA battery wiggles its way across a tabletop covered with paper. Handcrafted from objects easily found in a kitchen junk drawer — masking tape, rubber bands and a plastic berry basket — the contraption balances on a pair of legs made from highlighters. It whimsically revolves around the table, leaving fluorescent pink and blue trails in its path.

While the marks the machine makes are captivating, the act of designing the robot is the real lesson for the students who create them, according to Aaron Knochel, an assistant professor of art education in the School of Visual Arts at Penn State.

As an artist and technology enthusiast, Knochel has been tinkering with these scribbling robots — or scribble-bots — for years, and more recently began using them in art education classes he teaches at Penn State.

For future art teachers and their students, Knochel says scribble-bots not only have important implications for learning about the design process, but for blending both art and science in one engaging lesson.

Knochel will lead a hands-on scribble-bot workshop at Penn State’s Art of Discovery booth at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Participants of all ages are invited to stop by to play with and build their own robots from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 14, at the booth next to Willard Building. The workshop will be one of many free hands-on activities hosted at the booth by Penn State educators highlighting the art of science and science of art.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring scribble-bots to the wider community, and I think the Arts Festival is a great venue to showcase this technology for people of all ages and backgrounds,” Knochel said. “I’ve seen everyone from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds be intrigued by these jumpy, jittery things, so I use that curiosity as a jumping off point for getting people interested in learning about art and technology. The machines themselves are simple, so it’s really about the ingenuity of how to put the machine in motion that’s the most interesting part.”

Aaron Knochel

Aaron Knochel, an assistant professor of art education at Penn State, will conduct a scribble-bot workshop on July 14 at the University's Art of Discovery booth at the 2017 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Image: Patrick Mansell

With legs made from crayons or markers, the tiny robots color on their own thanks to the vibrating motor and counterweights that help the robots hop around on a piece of paper. The patterns the bot draws (from dotted lines to concentric circles) can be customized by adjusting variables such as the number of legs, height of the legs, and lengths of the motor arm and weight.  

Though Knochel didn’t invent the scribble-bot (like many makers, he discovered an open-source tutorial online), he has introduced the do-it-yourself bots to Penn Staters and community members at a variety of local art exhibits and classroom events.

For these participants — whether they’re in a college or elementary school classroom — flexing their engineering and artistic muscles to come up with new design ideas is what the process of creating scribble-bots is all about, according to Knochel.

“These bots help to teach basic scientific concepts like how to create an electrical circuit, but the part that’s really fascinating to me is how people work together and learn from each other to make the machines. It becomes a very collaborative environment where the participants are sharing and manifesting hundreds of combinations of bots,” Knochel said. “I can give the same materials to a group of students and each bot will have its own unique variation. The best part is when students start to go off in a thousand different directions.”

While some bots might incorporate advanced electronics, more accessible low-tech versions can be fashioned from as little as a piece of chalk, rubber band, electrical wire and hobby motor, which makes them an easy-to-customize learning experience for students of all ages.

Penn State at the 2017 Arts Festival - Aaron Knochel

Penn State is highlighting the art of science and the science of art at a booth at this summer’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. The booth, The Art of Discovery, is bringing Penn State faculty, graduate students and staff members together to spotlight the intersection of art and science with educational workshops, including one by Aaron Knochel, a faculty member who creates scribble-bots with his students. Get a sneak preview of Knochel's work in this video, and drop by the booth next to Willard Building on the University Park campus, July 13-15, to experience what Knochel and others at Penn State are doing with art and science. Find out more: http://news.psu.edu/story/473839/2017/07/06/research/penn-state-booth-highlight-art-science-arts-festival

Today, Knochel’s using them in his Penn State classes to help art teachers learn to be comfortable with and infuse 3-D printing, open source electronics and other technologies into their future teaching practices.  

“Scribble-bots are a great mechanism to help my students create both art and curriculum. As they conceive their futures as teachers, it’s vital for them to be engaged in conversations about technology,” he said. “As art educators, we’re trying to work toward something we don’t even know is out there yet. I can’t predict what art education will be like when my students are teachers, so I strive to inform them about what came before, but also prepare them to be able to adapt and change with the profession. I believe a huge part of that is embracing technology.”

Knochel credits Penn State with making this job a little easier due to the many initiatives in the works that advance arts and humanities programs and interdisciplinary collaboration across the University.

Two of these initiatives are Penn State University Libraries’ Maker Commons, a maker space that has made 3-D printing accessible to all Penn State students, as well as Making for the Masses, a course to expand maker curriculum at the University, in which Knochel is involved.

Scribble-bots art

Following the construction phase, participants in the scribble-bots workshop let their creations loose on paper, creating a gridlock of dazzling patterns.

Image: Patrick Mansell

This past spring, Knochel collaborated with five Penn State faculty members who were selected as Teaching and Learning with Technology Fellows to develop the new course to enable students to explore art, culture, technology and the growing maker movement through a variety of interdisciplinary activities. The course premiered this spring, and Knochel expects there to be future iterations.

“Maker culture is this way of thinking about materials and design that extends beyond just one field or discipline, and I think Penn State is very interested in providing resources and facilities to capture a bit of that magic,” Knochel said.

In the future, he says he’s hoping to advance general education at Penn State by developing art and design-centered curricula that’s for anybody and everybody.

“It’s important for me to make sure the arts are contributing to critical conversations around the future of education. So, if I can use a little robot that draws to collapse some boundaries across disciplines and help a student see art, technology or engineering in a new way then I’ve accomplished that goal,” Knochel said.

“The world doesn’t have disciplinary problems; it has problems that require collaboration and innovation to solve. If we can foster learning somewhere between science and art class, then we’ll be able to bring even more perspectives and voices to the table.”

You can learn more about Knochel’s work and build your own scribble-bot at Penn State’s Art of Discovery booth at the Arts Festival on July 14. The booth will be open for visitors from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, July 13, through Saturday, July 15. For the latest on each day’s activities and guests, check out the schedule of events.

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Last Updated July 19, 2017