St. Thomas’ Playful Learning Lab and its director, School of Engineering and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship professor AnnMarie Thomas, have formed a new partnership with Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin.

An extension of the Playful Learning Lab’s ongoing partnership, OK Go Sandbox, with rock band OK Go, the latest project is inviting students to create their own art and experiments that can be sent into actual space onboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

“I’m just so proud of our St. Thomas students. From the beginning of this partnership, Playful Learning Lab students have been involved in every aspect of the Art in Space project,” Thomas said. “Education students have helped design the application process, engineering students have discussed payload specifications with Blue Origin, and marketing/entrepreneurship students have worked on the campaign to promote the project.”

OK Go is known for its audaciously experimental music videos, including Upside Down and Inside Out, in which the band members choreographed an entire performance while floating in microgravity in a plane. Now, the band wants to help K-12 students see their ideas come to life by sending student art projects up in an actual spacecraft.

“Creativity is really the joy of experimentation. When we made our video in microgravity, we were just experimenting – pushing our ideas and our understanding further and further through trial and error and play,” said OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash. “We’ve made music videos by performing all sorts of art experiments that overlap with math, and science, and engineering.  Now we want students to dream up their own experiments, and we will help them get their art in space.”

Teams of students – even entire classes – are eligible to submit ideas for experiments. Submissions do not have to be fully engineered projects – just ideas that can be turned into space-worthy experiments with the help of OK Go’s expert partners. Previously, such experts have helped OK Go do everything from creating a 4-minute Rube Goldberg machine, to stretching a 4.2-second chain reaction into a 4-minute song, and recording an entire music video in zero gravity.

In May, entries will be judged on a number of criteria, with two ideas being chosen by a team of judges including OK Go band members, engineers from the University of St. Thomas Playful Learning Lab, and aerospace experts.  The winning teams will work in collaboration with Playful Learning Lab engineers to develop their art projects and prepare to send them as a payload on a Blue Origin spacecraft. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a reusable spacecraft designed to take payloads — and soon people — into suborbital space.

The  nonprofit venture OK Go Sandbox helps teachers use OK Go videos in the classroom. Founded in 2018, OK Go Sandbox showcases new videos, challenges, and activities, based on the band’s music videos. Led by Kulash and Thomas, OK Go Sandbox has worked closely with educators from around the world to develop new ways to help kids experience the joy and wonder of learning.

“This is about bringing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) concepts to life for students and inspiring engineers, mathematicians, makers, scientists, artists, thinkers and more,” Thomas said. “This contest will give students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see their ideas floating in space.”

The rules of the contest are:

  • Teams must include three or more students between the ages of 11 and 18, along with one adult mentor.
  • Submissions must include a 500-word essay and pictures or videos of the concept.
  • Submissions must be from students, but teachers and parents can help.
  • Be creative, but ideas have to be technically feasible to build in real life.
  • The deadline for the contest is May 6, 2019, at 11:59 p.m. CDT.

For details and to apply, visit okgosandbox.org/art-in-space.

One giant leap for Playful Learning Lab, OK Go Sandbox

OK Go famously made a music video in microgravity in an airplane; they’ve done similar physics-based videos throughout their band’s history and 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.

OK Go Sandbox launched March 15, 2018, and is available to view here.

“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.

The partnership with Blue Origin represents the next step in those design challenges that students get to take ownership of.

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