Syllabus: Robotics for Creative Practice

16-375/54-375 IDeATe: Robotics for Creative Practice
TR 3:05PM-4:25PM
Hunt Library A10 (IDeATe Physical Computing Lab)
remote contingency: Zoom Meeting 913 8286 7154 (password-protected)
office hours: in HL A10 on request, time slots will be offered (office hours information)
Instructor: Dr. Garth Zeglin (garthz) (pronouns: he/him/his)
IDeATe Collaborative Course, offered by Drama and The Robotics Institute

Course Description

The course is offered the same under either 16-375 or 54-375, although with slightly varying descriptions as noted in italics:

16-375 IDeATe: Robotics for Creative Practice

Robots come in all shapes and sizes: it is the integration of software and hardware that can make any machine surprisingly animate. This project-oriented course brings art and engineering together to build performance systems using embodied behavior as a creative medium. Students learn skills for designing, constructing and programming automated systems for storytelling and human interaction, then explore the results through exhibition and performance. Technical topics include closed-loop motion control, expressive physical and computational behavior, machine choreography, and performance conceptualization. Discussion topics include both contemporary kinetic sculpture and robotics research. This interdisciplinary course is part of IDeATe Physical Computing but is open to any student.

54-375 IDeATe: Robotics for Creative Practice

Robots come in all shapes and sizes: it is the integration of software and hardware that can make any machine surprisingly animate. This project-oriented course brings art and engineering together to build performance systems using embodied behavior as a creative medium. Students learn skills for designing, constructing and programming automated systems for storytelling and human interaction, then explore the results through exhibition and performance. Technical topics include programmed motion control, machine design, closed-loop feedback systems, machine choreography, and human-robot interaction. Discussion topics include contemporary kinetic sculpture and animatronics. This interdisciplinary course is part of IDeATe Physical Computing but is open to any student.

Prerequisites and Enrollment

This course has no formal prerequisites, but students are expected to have junior-level technical skills within their own discipline. If you have any questions concerning prerequisites please contact the instructor. Total enrollment is limited to 20 students, drawn from all departments.

Detailed Description

This collaborative course brings art and engineering together to explore interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of drama, music, and robotics. This exploration is the key aim of IDeATe: we are developing practitioners who can effectively utilize their expert domain knowledge in collaboration with other disciplines. This involves developing both rigorous individual expertise as well as skill with negotiating the vocabularies of other domains. Students will be expected to learn skills from outside their home discipline and teach their own expertise, but more importantly, to develop their abilities to collaborate in diverse groups.

The students in the course work in assigned groups to develop performance machines, culminating in a public show. These machines use embodied behavior as a creative medium for storytelling and performance. The technical portion of the course includes a number of techniques: machine design, kinematics, feedback control, real-time programming, and machine choreography.

The course project revolves around the following question: what does it mean to be surprisingly animate? This phrase originally comes from a quip between roboticists [1] but suggests a number of subsidiary questions:

  1. What do we mean by animate?

  2. How do we create behavior without computation?

  3. How does embodiment change our perceptions of computation?

Each year the course develops a different theme. This year will focus on the possibilities of creating human-robot hybrid performances. The emphasis is on creating machines with expressive physical dynamics which can be revealed through the control of a skilled human performer. The interaction of a machine and human evokes questions of the blurry boundaries between the synthetic and the natural, the self and the other, the animate and the inanimate.

Learning Objectives

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

  1. formulate a narrative goal as an interaction of a machine and material or objects

  2. apply basic closed-loop control techniques to create joint-level position control

  3. construct actuated machines with articulated structures

  4. program robots using basic state machines, feedback control, and planning algorithms to create the illusion of life and agency

  5. simulate multi-robot systems incorporating real-world dynamics

  6. collaborate with teams of artists, designers, engineers, and computer scientists to create performance technology

  7. use machine behavior as an artistic medium

It also incorporates the general goals of IDeATe to develop hybrid students with integrated knowledge in technology and arts. This stresses the following general skills:

  1. algorithmic and analytic thinking

  2. end-to-end execution of project concepts

  3. communication through writing, drawing, and speaking

  4. professional preparation

Prerequisite Knowledge

The course has no formal prerequisites because the diverse nature of the student background and breadth of related skills makes it difficult to formulate precise rules.

However, the work expects each student to have junior-level technical skills within their own discipline. In general, this could mean experience with any one of Python programming, parametric 3D CAD, mechanical design, sculptural fabrication, choreography, or composition. It is not expected that any individual possesses all related skills, and project teams are crafted with skill balance in mind.

But in practice, the pace of the course does assume some programming coursework or experience. Students without any programming experience have succeeded but should expect to spend additional time on rapid self-study of elementary Python programming.

Course Structure

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

  1. theoretical foundations explored using simulation tools (four weeks)

  2. practical skills explored using prototype hardware (five weeks)

  3. project and performance development (five weeks)

Weekly Calendar

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


Topics and Project Activities


Contextual exploration, introduction to simulation.


Kinematics, dynamics, and feedback control.


Miniature machine design and fabrication tests.


Performance improvisation and storyboarding, proof-of-concept testing.


Script iteration, project design, fabrication, and assembly.


Full system integration, testing, design iteration.


Preparation for public performance.


Documentation, analysis, review and critique.

Daily Schedule

Scheduled classes take place in Hunt A10. 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.


Updated for Fall 2022.

The course Canvas site is used only for reporting grades. All assignments can be found on the Daily Agenda Logbook and Fall 2022 Calendar and submissions are either in-person or as posts on the RCP project site.

Assessment and Grading

This is a hands-on course based on lab exercises and projects. There are no quizzes or exams. Most assignments involve programming, designing, or constructing some kind of simulation or physical demo.

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. The total grade in the course will be weighted approximately 60% for projects, 30% for exercises, and 10% for classroom participation and discussion.

Please note also that much of the feedback on your work will come in the form of critique and commentary rather than numerical scores. Please attend to this; the commentary will be a much more substantive guide to your personal learning process than the scoring.

Each project will also include a peer evaluation component. The purpose of this element is to identify the specific contributions of each group member to the project outcome. Individual scores for a project may vary from the group score based on peer reports and instructor observations.

Course Policies

Pandemic and Wellness

Updated for Fall 2022.

We are entering the semester on a normal basis, but there are a number of circumstances related to the ongoing pandemic which could affect the course. Any student or instructor may need to enter isolation, capacity limits could be cut on short notice, or facilities could become partially or fully inaccessible.

No one should physically come to class if they are feeling unwell for any reason, whether Covid-19 or something else. Part of the responsibility of each student is respecting the welfare of others.

Please contact your instructor to arrange remote participation (if feasible) and renegotiate due dates and expectations. Generous allowances will be made.

If needed, some or all of the class may switch to Zoom for meetings. The Zoom meeting and password can be found on the Zoom meeting page (login required).

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 your other courses have big deadlines, but the designated class hours are the most effective time for discussion and communication.


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 received within 24 hours of the deadline will receive half-score. Assignments received later than 24 hours will not be examined and receive zero score.

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.

Electronic Devices

The use of devices for non-class activities is strictly prohibited during class time. This especially applies to phones and social media: leave it at home or leave it your pocket.

The instructor reserves the right to confiscate devices without notice. If a persistent problem develops, phones will be banned completely from class.

Class participation is essential for learning and collaboration. An individual engaging with outside distractions has an effect larger than their own attention: it distracts others and diffuses the group focus.

If you feel bored and in need of distraction, then I challenge you to spend that energy instead formulating a question about the material at hand.

Computing Needs

Each student is expected to provide computing resources for individual work. If this requirement constitutes an individual hardship, please contact the instructor. A limited number of laptops are available for borrowing from IDeATe.

The default requirement is a personal computer that is capable of running Webots (robot simulation) on which you have the ability to install new software. The full specification of software needs can be found in Course Software Overview.

The optional course-supported CAD system will be SolidWorks.

Physical Computing Lab

Updated for Fall 2022.

The designated classroom for the course is the IDeATe Physical Computing Lab in Hunt A10. Students will have access to the lab any time outside of scheduled class times via the ID card reader at the door. Please be courteous and refrain from entering during other classes.

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.

The lab usage schedule is online at IDeATe PhysComp Lab Calendar. Other resources may be reserved using the IDeATe Reservations Calendar.

IDeATe Facilities

Updated for Fall 2022.

The course makes use of the IDeATe fabrication facilities and labs in the lower level of Hunt Library, subject to availability and the current IDeATe policies.

  1. IDeATe laser cutters will be available for trained students. Please see the IDeATe Laser Cutter Policies page for current details on qualification.

  2. IDeATe Lending will be operating normally and material purchases will be available. Please see the IDeATe Lending (Hunt A29) page for current details.

  3. The 3D printers will be operating via the Skylab online portal for course-related projects.

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

  5. IDeATe may continue to adjust operations in response to pandemic conditions, for current status please see IDeATe Covid-19.

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

Individual Support

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

Respect for Diversity

Updated for Fall 2022.

It is my intent that students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives be well served by this course, and that the diversity that students bring to this class be viewed as a resource, strength and benefit. It is my intent to present materials and activities that are respectful of diversity: gender, sexuality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and culture. Your suggestions are encouraged and appreciated. Please let me know ways you see to improve equitable treatment of yourself or other students in the course so we can address these questions with clarity.

Student Health and Well-being

Updated for Fall 2022.

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.

If you are having difficulty with your coursework, please be aware of the many resources available via the Student Academic Success Center, including coaching, tutoring, communication support, language and cross-cultural support, and supplemental instruction.

Last updated 2022-08-25.