GradAttack Podcast #4 – Nina McCurdy

Podcast #4 – 02/04/2016

Poetry, Jazz Music, and (Potentially) Murderous Robot Bears: Nina McCurdy on Teaching a Balance between Art and Technology in University Education

Nina McCurdyNina McCurdy

Nina McCurdy, creative artist and PhD student in the University of Utah’s School of Computing, stops by with some gadgets she has engineered as part of a new university course entitled “Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media,” which she hopes will be the model for integrating artistic creativity into technological education in the modern university. Nina also shows us some fascinating ways in which integrative approaches like hers are changing the way researchers work, revealing new possibilities for creative and technological expression.

The Arts and Technology Lecture Series, Organized by Professor Erik Brunvand and the University of Utah School of Computing:

Download the file here: Poetry, Jazz Music, and (Potentially) Murderous Robot Bears: Nina McCurdy on Teaching a Balance between Art and Technology in University Education


PH: Hello and welcome to another University of Utah GradAttack podcast. Today we are talking about robot bears and technical fluency education with Nina McCurdy from the School of Computing.
Nina, you’re a PhD student in Computer Science, which, of course, you know, and this is just bad exposition for our listeners. But can you give us a breakdown of what it is you research, and how it fits into your larger field, in general?

NM: Yeah. I think I should give a little background first. I did my undergraduate in applied physics, and after that I was always kind of figuring out how to integrate art into science…

PH: Because you are also a jazz drummer at the same time, right?

NM: I was trained in jazz when I was little and I always loved playing jazz, and also my mom’s an artist and I grew up around a lot of visual arts, so I was committed to figuring out how to link the two in my career. So I studied applied physics, but afterwards I worked with a cosmology theorist to figure out how to visualize his cosmology simulations for planetariums and for general public outreach stuff. So that got me really into visualization, which brought me here. I’m currently in the school of computing, but I’m also a researcher at SCI, the scientific computing and imaging institute, where I’m focusing in graphics and data visualization. So that’s kinda my bigger picture, but this was always something that I really enjoyed doing, and I wanted to – I couldn’t turn down this opportunity to help with this class.

PH: Well, cool. You mentioned this class. Now, you came to my attention when you showed up at the Yuput offices a couple months ago with what I kept referring to as a “robot bear” in my complete ignorance – I just saw this stuffed bear with wires and things coming out of it, and thought it was awesome, or perhaps nightmarish, I don’t know. So I immediately sent an email to my colleague, asking who the person was with the bear, and could I do an interview with her or with the bear for the podcast, and at the time I didn’t even know if you were a graduate student, I just wanted to hear more about the cool gadgets you had. And, of course, I learned then that you have a prestigious university teaching assistantship through the Grad School, in which the bear plays an important role. So, could you explain all that to us – what you’re doing as an instructor with this teaching assistantship and the role played in it by the bear

NM: I guess I should start – Erik Brunvand is an associate professor in the School of Computing, and he’s also an adjunct associate professor for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and he actually received a University Professorship last year to develop this course. And the course is called Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media. And his approach is that, in the undergraduate general eds., they cover a lot of different fields – physics, humanities, things like that – but there really isn’t any engineering and technology. And he was really inspired to create a course that would increase technological fluency. And he likes to use the term fluency because, unlike literacy, fluency means that you can kind of experiment or speak, actually – order a burrito, whatever. So, this was kind of the motivation for developing this course. He actually piloted the course last spring, and this past fall we did another test-run of the course, just he and I, and we kind of improved it a little bit and added some different aspects to it: we made a lab manual, and now we’re offering it again this semester. So, that’s kind of the break down. Does that fill in the gaps?

PH: Yes, certainly! Now, you do have your robot bear with you. Is it possible to give a demonstration and maybe explain to our listeners how this is working?

NM: Yes, absolutely. I figured this was a radio program, and I had to bring some noisemakers. Yeah, so I don’t know if you’ll be including a picture of…

PH: Oh, we certainly will, yeah…

NM: One of the assignments is to make some oscillators that make noise, basically. And we really wanted to encourage the students to enclose these oscillators in some interesting contraption or something like that. So I dove into that and I put my oscillator into this kind of horrific, nightmarish, robot bear, which is really incredibly frightening –

PH: He’s a little threadbare, and I think that makes him a little frightening. Otherwise, generally cute.

NM: Yeah, so, he was a Winnie the Pooh at one time, and now he’s a monster. But I’ll get him going. Apologies if it’s a little noisy. Actually, not. Not apologies. So, essentially, what I’ve done is put the oscillator in the bear and then added a bunch of different little knobs and light sensors and things to manipulate the different parameters of the bear. Basically to manipulate the resistance of the various oscillators.

PH: Okay.

NM: So, I’ll just turn it up a little bit. [beeping and humming noises]. So, are you getting some waves over there?
PH: Yeah…

NM: Okay, so, if I move the bear around, what you’re hearing is the change in incoming light just from this room. [pitch of the sound rises and falls].

PH: And where are the light sensors?

NM: The light sensors are in the eyeballs.

PH: Okay. So can we cover his eyeballs?

NM: We can. And the two different light sensors are changing the resistence of two different oscillators. So we can kind of… [noises change more regularly as each eye is covered in turn]. And then we also have two knobs that we can kind of change the frequency of the different oscillators. [frequency changes up and down]. And then, finally, we have what I like to call a distortion pedal, which is voltage-starving, so it’s changing the amount of voltage that’s going to the circuit. [various effects on the noise]. So, that’s probably enough of that for everyone.

PH: So, obviously, when you cover up its eyes, the bear knows that light is being cut off from him. How long until this bear or one like it seeks vengeance for what we’ve done to him?

NM: I’ve actually been keeping him in my home and in my office, and I’m a little bit nervous about that. So if you don’t hear from me in a few months, that might be your answer.

PH: You have at least one more toy here. Do you think you could give us another demonstration?

NM: Absolutely. So, the project after the oscillator project is called “Toy Hacking.” And, basically, the idea is to go to the DI or the thrift store and buy the most obnoxious, very inexpensive toy you can. I have to say, I looked pretty interesting walking around the DI with a shopping cart full of kids’ toys, and no kids to be found anywhere around me. One of the pleasures of this class. So, we’re buying a toy, and basically we’re tearing these toys apart and manipulating the toys’ timing. Maybe I’ll just start by playing it, so we can see what’s going on.
[Toy: “It’s a sunny day on the farm! Hi There!”]

NM: So, I think I did a pretty good job of finding something obnoxious. And what we’ve done is we’ve found the resistor within the toy that actually changes the timing, so what it’s doing is, by increasing the resistance … so, I guess, I should say the one equation that we really hone in on in this class – and I’m sorry for everyone that hates equations – but it’s Ohm’s law, which is V=IR, voltage equals current times resistance. So, increasing the resistance lowers the current, and that decreases the flow of electrons through the circuit, and when you have a slower flow of electrons, it takes longer for a capacitor to charge up, and that actually changes the timing of the circuit. Conversely, decreasing the resistance of the circuit increases the current, and allows the capacitor to charge up quickly, which speeds up the timing of the circuit. So that’s what we’ll be doing now.
[Toy: “let’s count some farm friends. Sing with me!” Song starts, then speeds up quickly, before being slowed again.]

PH: Now, do you find that this kind of class is accessible to people from a humanities background? I mean, are you dealing mostly with science students or have you had a bigger influx of students from multiple disciplines?

NM: It’s actually a really nice mix, and for some reason, this semester we have a lot of business majors. Which is awesome, but, yeah, it’s definitely a mix of people in CS and people in some or other disciplines. And I think it’s incredibly accessible. I actually hadn’t done any circuit bending before I came into this course. I was a little bit intimidated by it. And it’s incredibly empowering, because it’s actually very straightforward and very accessible, and you’ll find that you go home and you take apart everything in your house. But DON’T do that with things that plug in. Or make sure your space heater is unplugged. I didn’t hurt myself because I made sure to unplug things.
PH: This is really cool. It makes me think of maybe 20 years ago, when that art collective took the GI Joe figurines and put the voice boxes from barbies inside of them.

NM: Oh yeah, that was incredible. That would be a great final project, maybe mess around with the resistors a little bit.

PH: What I like about it is, you’re essentially doing something that is teaching literacy, but it does not need to have an immediate practical end. People can use this for sheer joy and at the same time learn something. I think that’s really cool.

NM: Precisely.

PH: But that said, you have said that you believe that science and artistic expression go hand-in-hand, at least in your own research and in your own life. Do you think there’s a lack of balance between those two poles in university education right now?

NM: Absolutely. I think the fact that – at least in my background – I had to kind of develop these two passions and interests in parallel, and then figure out how to combine them on my own, definitely signifies that there’s a lack of this. And I think Erik’s actually kind of starting a revolution in this, at least here at the U., trying to integrate and create a space where these two disciplines can interact, and have a lot of fun.

PH: That’s really cool. And do you think that’s working? Is that going to set that imbalance right? Do you think that the U. and other universities should take any other steps to try to encourage more artistically inclined people to look more towards scientific fields and vice versa?

NM: Yeah, definitely. I think, in general, having an artistic background will change the way that you think about science – as all backgrounds will – and I think that that could lead to some really incredible scientific breakthroughs. So, yeah, I’m a huge advocate for that.

PH: Okay. And you said that this was a two-year project, right?

NM: Yes. So, right now we’re holding the second offering of this course, but we’re really hoping to figure out a way to make this course continue into the future and be a part of the general education program here at the U. So, we’re trying to figure out how to make that happen, but the course is going really well so far, and hopefully we’ll get a lot of great feedback and figure out a way to continue it.

PH: Have you made any major changes since the first year?

NM: Well, we’ve kind of developed it more. The lab manual did a nice addition, but Erik really laid down a really nice foundation for the course, so we’re still kind of working out the kinks of it, and figuring out, maybe, more spaces to put demos and [things like that]. The issue with this course in general is, the material is so incredibly expansive, and there are so many great ideas that we could incorporate into the course, so a lot of it is figuring out really how to make a nice, I guess, trajectory, for the course, and integrating the main fundamental components. So, the course starts with kind of some background on some experimental electronic music, then we move into some fundamentals of electronics, then a little bit of business, and one equation, and then we really get into circuit bending, and we do a little bit of programming, too. So it’s already full of incredibly fun projects. Figuring out what additional projects would be incorporated is a little bit tricky.

PH: Yeah, sure, simply because you’re spoiled for choice, it sounds like.

NM: Exactly, we’re spoiled for choices. But, it has a really nice shape at this point.

PH: Okay. And are there any public outreach activities?

NM: Yeah! Thank you for reminding me. In addition to the course, Erik has actually developed a lecture series about art and technology that’s run in parallel with the course. And these are public lectures held at the Gould Auditorium in the Marriott library, and I would encourage everyone to check it out and see what kind of lectures are coming up around now – whenever now is. Mostly he’s inviting people – pioneers in electronics and robotic sculpture and things like that – so it’s a really great program.

PH: We’ll put a link for that up on the website.

NM: Terrific.

PH: And, finally, I just wanna ask you: Can you give us an idea of what’s coming up next for you as a researcher?

NM: Yeah. So, I in addition to this wonderful work that I’m doing for this course, I also really have had a great time doing visualization, and I’ve actually been working for the past several years with poets in the creative writing program here at the U….

PH: Very cool.

NM:… looking into visualizing sonic patterns in poetry. And in addition to this, I’ll be doing a little work with the cosmology theorist that I mentioned from my undergraduate days. So, I am fully launching into my visualization career, hopefully, but I hope that circuit bending and this work in the course will be a part of my career as I move forward – whether in outreach or in teaching these kinds of courses, I don’t know.

PH: That is so cool. Can you give us an idea of what you mean by “visualizing sonic patterns in poetry”?

NM: Yeah! So, this is kind of a radically fun an exciting project that we’ve been doing, working with Katharine Coles in the creative writing program and one of her post-docs, Julie Ween (sp.?). And, basically, we had no idea when we began what we were going to do, and we eventually figured out that visualizing sonic patterns in poetry – rhymes and also patterns in mouth movement and things like that – could be one way that we could support their scholarship. So we’ve been doing a lot of work in that, and a lot of experimenting. So that’s really fun.
PH: Wow. That’s fantastic. Thank you very much, Nina McCurdy, for coming in and talking to us today. We’ll put links to that lecture series up on the website, and any other information we can find on your program. Have an excellent sum – er, winter, it is.

NM: Thank you so much for having me!