South Allegheny class offers unusual mix: art history and robotics
November 4, 2016 12:00 AM
South Allegheny Middle School student Mary Humphries, right, looks up from her laptop to check on her animated cat she named “Kittie," during Jayme Sweet’s eighth-grade art class.
From left to right: South Allegheny Middle School students Hannah Marsh, Megan Baur and Allyson Danlovich hold their robotic art of their “Animated Coffee “ cup.
By Margaret Smykla
What do you get when you combine art history with robotics?
For at least two students at South Allegheny Middle School, the answer is their favorite art project ever.
That was the reaction of Wesley DiGiorgio and Mason Thomas, who were among 30 eighth-graders in a nine-week art class in which students create an art gallery of masterpieces that move.
“I get to use my imagination to figure out how to make a picture move and light up,” Wesley said.
“It’s fun trying to use a vibration motor for the little cars,” Mason said.
Working in groups, the students chose a famous painting from a list of 144 artists. After learning about their selected artist, they re-created the work in three dimensions, using cardboard, foam, food containers and more. Then, they had to answer this question: What story would their creation tell if they could bring it to life with movement?
Lastly, they had to figure out how to design that movement.
Students used a motor or a servomotor, which is a motor that contains a position-sensing device; LED lighting; and a Hummingbird Robotics Kit designed for young people.
Using computer coding, they decided how much movement and light their re-creation would need.
“This is our step into the future of remaking learning,” visual art teacher Jayne Sweet said.
“There was a lot of peer mentoring,” she said, especially with the computer component.
“For some, the coding came easy, but for others it was a foreign language,” she said.
Wesley, Mason and Donato DiMucci chose an artwork by British street artist Banksy that depicts a girl on a swing hanging from the letter “A” in the word “PARKING.” The work originally appeared on the wall of a city parking lot in Los Angeles.
“It just looked cool to us,” Mason said of their choice.
To make the swing move, the students used a servomotor to precisely control its position. A vibration motor added movement to model cars in the urban parking lot. Light-emitting diode lighting highlighted the work.
Mrs. Sweet, who also teaches computer coding, said the project is designed to foster the 21st century learning skills of the STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics — initiative: communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
“The plan is when they go into the business world, they will be able to do problem solving,” she said.
Students Olivia Stetz, McKenna Territo and Justine Shamber chose the surrealist masterpiece “Time Transfixed” by Belgian artist Rene Magritte. In it, a locomotive juts out of a fireplace below a mantel holding a clock and candlesticks.
The girls crafted a locomotive from yogurt containers and a tube, with a recycled lightbulb socket as the smoke stack.
The candlesticks were made from dowel rods, with LED lighting creating flames. A servomotor made the clock move.
The biggest challenge, McKenna said, was “putting it all together to make it look like the painting.”
Olivia said the hardest part was making it all move.
“It is important to know how to code when you get older,” Justine noted.
Mrs. Sweet said the class could have another long-term benefit.
“Computer science is declining among women enrolled at college,” she said. “Maybe this will help girls want to get into the program.”
When the nine-week course ended in late October, the students presented reports on their artists and projects, after which their work was viewed by other students in their classroom gallery.
During each of the next three nine-week art classes, students will produce similar works, which will also be displayed in the gallery.
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: email@example.com.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.