A brief, shining moment in the basement of the MIT Media Laboratory may not look like a revolution in human learning -- after all, who hasn't seen school children dressed in sweats playing with computers?
But this was RoBallet, a weeklong dance and technology workshop hosted by the Media Lab, led by Seymour Papert, a founding member of the lab; Jacques D'Amboise, former principal dancer in the New York City Ballet and founder of the National Dance Institute; and David Cavallo, director of the Media Lab's Future of Learning research group.
"This is about turning learning upside down. It's a step forward, just like the contraption the Wright brothers built in 1903 was a step forward. We're rethinking learning and mathematics in a new technological environment, changing how children do things," said Papert.
RoBallet, the workshop with D'Amboise, culminated in three dance performances on July 16.
The nine children, dressed in white sweatpants and pastel tops, performed in a small stage space created for RoBallet. Wearing bendable strip sensors and stomping on pressure sensors in a funky robot, jazzy way, they triggered dramatic changes in lights and sound.
One pas de deux was particularly effective: as the dancers moved toward each other, the outline of two halves of a red heart united behind them.
During the week, the group rehearsed dance movement with D'Amboise's assistant, Dufftin Garcia, practiced programming with members of the Media Lab, and animated figures and patterns that accompanied them via a backdrop onstage.
Papert, D'Amboise, Garcia and Cavallo and his graduate students were hands-on participant-leaders in the RoBallet workshop.
Papert is best known for developing Logo, a programming language for children, and LEGO Mindstorms. He is professor of media education, emeritus, and a co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab (AI Lab) as well as founder of the Future of Learning Group.
D'Amboise's career in classical ballet spanned 30 years, beginning in 1949. Performing on stages throughout the world, he enjoyed a close friendship with New York City Ballet director George Balanchine and dance partnerships with some of the world's most celebrated ballerinas, including Melissa Hayden and Suzanne Farrell.
Throughout the RoBallet week, Papert could have passed for a rock-and-roll roadie, carrying cable, tinkering with laptops and tutoring the young dancer-programmers.
"This week is a little step toward a world in which learning is totally transformed from sitting at a desk to this very concrete and passionate activity. The Media Lab team stayed up nights, working together to pull this off, and the dancers worked hard themselves. It's highly disciplined work; it's about technology bridging the gap between the dynamics of our bodies and our -- and the children's -- abstract ideas," said Papert.
D'Amboise, who met Papert through his friendship with Marvin Minsky, the other co-founder of the AI Lab, described the week at MIT in different terms but with similar enthusiasm.
He pointed at the scaffolding, lights, tangle of cables and taped-down sensors, sweeping it all away with a practiced hand.
"Imagine all this is gone. All you see is walls, then color and lights. Then the dancers. This space has become very profound; it is sacred, an environment where dancers order the universe by their movements," said D'Amboise.
Describing himself as a "strict, demanding teacher who doesn't hide emotions and doesn't laugh or let mistakes just slide by," D'Amboise, 69, insists his students learn both from his seriousness of purpose and his delight in movement itself.
"Nothing can be achieved without control of your material," he said. Surveying the group of "campers" on their second day of rehearsal, D'Amboise gave onlookers a sense of the fierce vitality behind his many years of world-renowned dance performances.
"You goofed! Go back! Do it again! Again! You -- terrific! You -- you're late! Now, faster!" His voice was loud, his eyes lit up. They did it again.
Afterward, D'Amboise reflected on the overall RoBallet experience.
"Already they've found a cadre. They're a team. They care. They've had a chance to discover how they move as a team. By using the technology here -- the computers, the sensors -- they are partners with the lights, the space, the music and with each other. They are participating fully in the performing arts," said D'Amboise.
According to Cavallo, research scientist at the Media Lab and director of the Future of Learning Group, RoBallet boils down to "rich math." He spent much of his week helping children "choreograph" movement on computer screens.
"What we want to do is give kids an experience of the kind of mathematical thinking that lets them use their sense of their bodies' movement through space and time and map it to get an animated figure to follow them onstage, a robot arm to move, and music to change. That's actually harder math than school math. It's also a real, felt, relational sense of math," Cavallo said.
"After this week and the wonderful opportunity to work with D'Amboise, we want them to walk away with a sense of how performing arts, technology and mathematics can all be expressive, creative, highly dynamic, and how they can be naturally inter-related. We want people to appreciate what these kids call, 'hard fun.' It's not easy. It's an exceptionally rich environment," said Cavallo.
RoBallet, the Future of Learning group project, continues this week, with more exploration of movement and further testing of technology.