Anyone who has seen rock band OK Go’s unique, gravity-defying, Rube Goldberg machine-building, treadmill-dance-choreographing videos knows they’re flat-out awesome. They have racked up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube around the world over the past decade-and-a-half.
Throughout that time the band consistently received letters, videos and emails from teachers saying they show those videos in class as inspiration. While that alone was cool for band members to hear, they harbored ambitions to do something more: They wanted to help those educators take the characteristics that leads their videos’ creations – curiosity, interdisciplinary openness and resourcefulness – and convert them into lessons for students.
“We’ve been wanting to connect better with teachers and educators, but we have full-time jobs, and the world of education is a complicated one to get into,” band member Damian Kulash said. “Thanks to coffee, the answer walked up in the wonderful person of AnnMarie.”
“AnnMarie” is St. Thomas Associate Professor of Engineering and Entrepreneurship AnnMarie Thomas, who also heads the university’s Playful Learning Lab. That serendipitous coffee came at a conference last April where Kulash had spoken; Thomas introduced herself and, after finding out what she did, Kulash realized he was talking to the partner his band had been looking for. Thomas invited him to speak with her about playing with creativity at TEDxUCLA a few weeks later. Soon afterward, the idea of OK Go Sandbox was born: an online portal providing learners and educators a way to engage with concepts in playful and unexpected ways.
“So many of these teachers show these videos, but they don’t have much way to engage them beyond showing them. We said, ‘What if we could use the videos to give design challenges to students?’” Thomas said.
Funding, check. So, OK, go
An anonymous donor provided seed money to kick the project off over the summer, and from there it has gotten the full Playful Learning Lab treatment, complete with the support of Thomas and several St. Thomas students across education, engineering, communication and journalism, and computer science. Everything started with soliciting surveys from more than 600 educators on what would be useful for them, and OK Go came to St. Thomas’ campus in September to film several videos exemplifying the product they hope to deliver to educators. More than a dozen St. Thomas students took part in script development and video production, and Kulash and Thomas held a workshop on campus with dozens of local educators.
“It’s been exciting to show how many students we can bring into a project like this,” Thomas said. “Most students wouldn’t think they’ll have the opportunity to work in college with actual rock stars, but here we are.”
One of those students, sophomore Paige Huschka, found in the project a perfect confluence of her engineering and musical loves. Huschka previously had helped with a Playful Learning Lab program called Code and Chords, which blends computer science and music to develop an open code source library for creating real-time visual displays based on multiple vocal inputs. As OK Go Sandbox’s project manager, she has helped Thomas guide the fast-moving collaboration through its connections with the band itself; other St. Thomas students; a professional filming crew; advisement from local K-12 educators; and curriculum testing in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.
“It’s such an amazing experience I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else but St. Thomas,” Huschka said. “I’m hoping this project can show these students there are so many different things you can do with science and engineering. … There can be a negative stigma about it being really hard, and it is hard, but it’s something a lot of people can do. Bringing that thinking at a younger age, that you can do so many things with it and it’s totally within your grasp, that’s been really cool to see with this education and engineering coming together.”
The project recently received additional support, which means the aim of OK Go Sandbox has expanded to “a whole suite of tools that will be on the website where students can engage with the content. There will be videos, guides to activities for teachers, ways for students to engage with the band and ask about their process,” Thomas said. “As well we’re working on Q and As with the band, some explanation videos of what they’ve done in their music videos and also a platform where students can send in comments.”
With funding in place, Thomas, Huschka and Kulash all expressed excitement at the possibilities ahead.
“We can only make so many videos, so many songs per year. We can’t scale up the things we’re doing, but if we can facilitate access for teachers to the building blocks of what we’re doing, that can scale,” Kulash said. “This interdisciplinary, resourceful thinking as a classroom-specific subject – that can scale.”
Educators responding to the survey and in adviser roles are excited for the possibilities OK Go Sandbox presents, too.
“I love this idea and your work! As a teacher, I feel honored and grateful that a group of artists are reaching out to us for ideas to help our students learn,” one educator wrote. “I have never before seen celebrities use their success to ask teachers how they can help. … I am so excited that you are inspired to support our classrooms and are asking teachers for suggestions on the best way to do that!”