Syllabus: Creative Kinetic Systems

16-223: IDeATe Portal: Creative Kinetic Systems
MW 9:20AM-11:10AM
Hunt Library A10 (IDeATe Physical Computing Lab)
Instructor: Dr. Garth Zeglin (garthz) (pronouns: he/him/his)
IDeATe Portal Course, offered by The Robotics Institute
Prerequisites: none

The art and science of machines which evoke human delight through physical movement is founded on a balance of form and computation. This introductory physical computing course addresses the practical design and fabrication of robots, interactive gadgets, and kinetic sculptures. The emphasis is on creating experiences for human audiences through the physical behavior of devices which embody computation with mechanism, sensing, and actuation. Specific topics include basic electronics, elementary mechanical design, embedded programming, and parametric CAD. A key objective is gaining an intuitive understanding of how information and energy move between the physical, electronic, and computational domains to create a compelling behavior.

This interdisciplinary course is an IDeATe Portal Course open to students from all colleges. For students choosing to follow an IDeATe program it is an entry into either Physical Computing or Intelligent Environments. The structure of the class revolves around collaborative exercises and projects which introduce core physical computing and system engineering techniques in a human-centric context. Students apply system and design thinking across multiple domains, work together to make and test several devices, and participate in wide-ranging critique which considers both technical and artistic success.


This course was offered under this name in Fall 2019 and Fall 2018, but was previously known as 16-223: Introduction to Physical Computing in Fall 2017, Fall 2016, and Fall 2015, and under 16-223/60-223 in Fall 2014. That name is still used by 60-223: Introduction to Physical Computing.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course the students will be able to:

  • design and fabricate kinetic mechanical structures

  • apply elementary electrical theory to constructing and debugging simple circuits

  • program imperative and event-loop based software for real-time embedded control

  • partition system functionality between mechanism, electronic hardware, and software

  • develop electromechanical computing solutions through an iterative research, design, and prototyping process

  • evaluate a system in the context of an end user application or experience

  • participate in collaborative teams by negotiating common goals and coordinating roles

  • analyze and critique projects along artistic and technical dimensions both verbally and in writing

  • reflect critically on their own learning and design process

  • articulate the story of a project and learning process through visual, written, and oral media

  • critique kinetic systems using the lenses of history and cultural context

Teaching Philosophy

This course is an introduction to the IDeATe Physical Computing Program, using technology learning as a vehicle for exploring interdisciplinary thinking. It operates under the following principles:

Immersion. Language shapes thought; thinking clearly about engineering and computing requires precise use of language. The course emphasizes correct use of technical terminology from the start, even as the meaning incrementally becomes understood.

Experiential Learning. We learn by doing. The course emphasizes immediate application of theory into practical demonstration; it is the success and especially the failure of the experiment which creates a vivid understanding of the principles.

Cooperative Learning. We teach each other. Articulating an explanation develops and tests knowledge and hones the skill of knowing the bounds of one’s own knowledge. Sometimes we will teach each other incorrectly, but careful attention to further evidence will correct this over time.

Self-motivation. Students are responsible for their own progress. Wherever possible, the driving motivation will be a self-chosen goal, divided into manageable subproblems. The desire for the goal prompts autonomous exploration. If you ever find the course dull, that is an opportunity to reflect on what you are trying to achieve and choose a new objective.

Reflection and Writing. Understanding develops through reflection, and the best discipline for reflection is writing and drawing. Mere repetition of the examples does not build skill; it is the process of reflection which integrates experience into knowledge which can be applied to novel situations.

Collaboration. The aim of IDeATe is to train each student to be excellent in one area of technology or arts and be able to collaborate within diverse cohorts of technology and arts experts. Collaborative skill requires excellence in one’s own areas of expertise, an ability to translate ideas across disciplinary bounds, and a proficiency in negotiation and compromise. Assigned groups give students practice with teamwork among unfamiliar collaborators.

Course Structure

Extensively updated for Fall 2020.

The overall structure of the semester proceeds through three main phases:

  1. skill-building and theory using simulation and CAD

  2. physical prototyping

  3. project development

Each phase will include attention to mechanism, electronics, software, collaboration, and critique.

Weekly Calendar

The day-by-day progress is charted on the Daily Agenda Logbook pages. Following is the general plan.


Topics, Exercises, and Project Activities


Circuit theory, Arduino programming.


Basic mechanical design, parametric CAD.


Electrical and mechanical fabrication, actuator and sensor interfacing.


Sensor and feedback processes, remote communication, generative movement.


Project ideation, planning, and design; design review, proof-of-concept testing.


Prototype fabrication and testing.


Final prototype revision, demonstration, and documentation.


Analysis, review, and critique.

Since all teaching will be remote for the final weeks of Fall 2020, students will not have any possibility of lab access for weeks 14 and 15. All final reviews will be over Zoom. Please plan your final fabrication and documentation accordingly.

Daily Schedule

Scheduled classes will take place via Zoom videoconference. The day-by-day agenda is provided on the Daily Agenda Logbook pages. Most scheduled class periods begin with a group discussion activity, followed by more specialized tutorials and individual questions. On specific presentation days the group discussion occupies the entire class period.

The group discussion activities take several forms, but frequently include a brief initial presentation, breakout into smaller groups to work out a specific prompt, then a full-class review of results.

Attendance during discussion activities is mandatory. If your circumstances will not permit you to participate, please negotiate alternate arrangements with the instructor in advance.

Attendance during subsequent tutorial and discussion is optional. I would like you to decide the best use of your time.

Asynchronous Instruction

Entirely new for Fall 2020.

This class is now entirely ‘flipped’, and lecture or other didactic presentation is provided as recorded video or text. Students are responsible for learning the presented material outside class time. The assigned and optional viewings and readings will be listed for each week using the Daily Agenda Logbook pages.

In general I expect that the asynchronous learning will be assessed by performance on assignments rather than quizzes or tests. My intent is to help each student follow an individual pace, focusing time on unfamiliar technique, and consulting outside resources if needed to fill in knowledge gaps.

Canvas and Piazza

Assignments and grades are posted on our Canvas site. The text course content is published at; the actual Canvas assignments are usually a link to the full text.

As a general rule, the Canvas Calendar is used for deliverable deadlines and the Daily Agenda Logbook pages for assigned viewings.

The early skill-building assignments are also submitted via Canvas, either as a short post or sometimes just a URL. Assignments involving more detailed documentation are submitted as posts on the 16-223 WordPress.


Entirely new for Fall 2020.

We are going to try conducting class-related discussion on Piazza this semester. By asking your technical and logistical questions via posts on Piazza, we can identify common questions and build a collective set of answers which will help everyone. You can even post your questions anonymously.

Pandemic Contingencies

If the university announces a change to remote-only teaching, not much will need to change, given that the course meetings are remote and materials are prepackaged. The lab will become entirely unavailable, so I recommend always taking your projects with you.

Grading Rubric

Everybody is assumed to start with an A in the course. If you do the work you will keep it, but failing to fulfill the expectations will cause you to drift downward.

Grading for this course is based on frequent low-stakes assessment. Each formal assignment is graded using a rubric which includes one or more of the following categories:

  • concept: clarity of the key idea, articulation of key principles and narrative, applicability to human or artistic needs, selection of appropriate aspects for proof-of-concept.

  • execution: translation of the concept into design, quality of the technical implementation.

  • documentation: quality of the reflection, clarity of the presentation, detail of the technical documentation.

Please note that project deadlines are strict as outlined in the Lateness Policy section. Project reports must also adhere carefully to the specified requirements to achieve full documentation scores.

The total course grades are scored on a relative scale based on weighted point totals. The approximate total weighting is 40% for the project and 60% for the technical exercises and demos.

Grades provide only a rough metric for student feedback. The more nuanced and useful feedback comes from verbal critiques, individual interviews, and written comments.

Materials and Equipment

Extensively updated for Fall 2020.

IDeATe endeavors to make all needed resources available to students without additional course fees. This class provides a course kit (or ‘course pack’) of materials sufficient to accomplish the exercise and project goals. Students are also permitted to provide, scavenge, or purchase additional materials for projects. If you find yourself unable to complete the work using just the kit, please consult your instructor.

However, there are additional tools and materials which will be suggested to assist your learning and ease your work. Please treat these as recommendations rather than requirements.

Students who are physically present on campus may also have access to the IDeATe Physical Computing Lab and IDeATe Fabrication resources, subject to current availability, scheduling, and student training constraints.

Computing Needs

New for Fall 2020.

Each student is expected to provide computing resources for individual work. If this requirement constitutes an individual hardship, please contact the instructor.

The default requirement is a personal macOS or Windows computer that is capable of running Autodesk Fusion 360, with a USB port available for programming Arduino microcontrollers, on which you have the ability to install new software. You will also need an Autodesk account (free for academic use). The full specification of software needs can be found in Course Software Overview.

Linux users are unfortunately out of luck, as Autodesk does not provide Fusion 360 for Linux, and Cluster Services does not provide it for Virtual Andrew.

The IDeATe ‘virtual cluster’ laptops will not be available for borrowing in Fall 2020.

General Course Policies

Attendance Policy

Coming to class on time is mandatory. Attendance is recorded for each class and three unexcused absences will cost you 10% of your final grade, with an additional 10% for each successive missed class. If you must be absent, you must request approval in advance. Late requests will be considered on a case by case basis. Unexcused absences during review days will also reduce your individual project grade.

We understand that the hour is early and your other courses have big deadlines, but the designated class hours are the most effective time for discussion and communication. However, as described in the Daily Schedule section, the majority of the class meetings will include both a mandatory participation phase and an optional phase.

Lateness Policy

All assignments must be submitted by the required deadline, unless prior authorization is obtained from an instructor and documented in email. Verbal authorization is not sufficient: any verbal discussion of late submission must be documented with an emailed request and reply.

Assignments bounced for revision at the discretion of the instructor must be returned within 24 hours if not otherwise specified. This rule is meant to allow a grace period for reports which overlook a required element; please do not assume that incomplete work can be resubmitted.

However, please remember that something is always better than nothing. If the deadline is imminent, please submit whatever text, images, and drawings you can rather than do nothing. Always ask for an extension rather than silently fail to deliver.

Physical Computing Lab

Updated for Fall 2020.

The designated classroom for the course is the IDeATe Physical Computing Lab in Hunt A10. Class meetings will be held via Zoom video-conference, however, the room is reserved and it may become possible for a preselected group to use the lab during this time. These students will gain access to the lab tools and materials, subject to the evolving rules (see IDeATe Covid-19).

Currently, the space has a capacity limit of 14. Any students using the space must abide by university policy and wear face coverings and maintain physical distance.

Currently, the Hunt A10 lab will only be available to students during class time. Please tap your ID to the reader on entry, even if the door is open, to support potential contact tracing.

Please keep in mind that access to the lab may be cut off on short notice at any time, so I highly recommend always taking your projects and materials with you.

Part of taking this course is joining the IDeATe interdisciplinary community. Students with lab access are expected to be a good community member and take responsibility for sharing resources wisely.

All lab users are expected to abide by the Physical Computing Lab Policies. The lab inventory of components and materials is available online at Physical Computing Lab Inventory.

IDeATe Facilities

Updated for Fall 2020.

The course makes use of the IDeATe fabrication facilities and labs in the lower level of Hunt Library, subject to availability and the evolving rules (see IDeATe Covid-19).

Currently, the IDeATe laser cutters are not available for general student use, and material purchases are not available from Lending.

Currently, the 3D printers will be operating via online submission for course-related projects, however this course does not fund or directly support 3D printed fabrication.

Currently, the normal library study spaces are operating on a reservation-only system.

The IDeATe facilities are shared student resources and spaces. As such, all members of the IDeATe community are expected to be respectful of the equipment, the spaces, and fellow students and their projects. Always clean up after completing your work, put things back in their correct place, and leave the lab in better condition than you found it.

Looking to the future, qualified students will gain long-term access to the laser cutters and Lending system. Please read and become familiar with the IDeATe lending and purchasing policies, which can be accessed at

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

If you have a disability and have an accommodations letter from the Disability Resources office, I encourage you to discuss your accommodations and needs with me as early in the semester as possible. I will work with you to ensure that accommodations are provided as appropriate. If you suspect that you may have a disability and would benefit from accommodations but are not yet registered with the Office of Disability Resources, I encourage you to contact them at

Student Health and Well-being

This semester promises to be radically different and potentially very stressful. Please take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412-268-2922 and visit Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

Last updated 2020-08-24.