NYU associate professor Natalie Jeremijenko brought her Feral Robot Dogs project to twenty-nine of our gifted and special-needs students at New York City's PS 153.

From December 2015 to April of this year, our students will assist Jeremijenko with transforming toy robot dogs into walking toxic waste detectors. The kids must equip them to explore the urban environment, and to consider how we can "redesign our relationship to natural systems." The project will culminate in a field trip to a public green area within walking distance of our school to test for air and soil pollution. Our students will report their findings to parents and community members at a concluding event.

Jermijenko has been leading workshops for years, teaching students at NYU and at various community centers and schools throughout the city how to hack the robot dogs to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — a powerful carcinogen produced as waste in many industrial products — in soil. VOCs contain carbon and have a low boiling point so that they emit gases at room temperature that can be hazardous when inhaled in high concentrations.

The robot dogs are re-wired with VOC sensors that use ultraviolet light to detect volatile organic compound molecules in the air, and additional microprocessor hardware such as Arduinos. Creating a ach feral robot dog is a hands-on education in engineering and design, and a way of monitoring the environmental health of your communities. After many years of taking her robots around the world, Professor Jeremijenko consented to take them where they have never been before… elementary school.

P.S. 153 is in New York's Co-Op City, n area whose interesting history attracted Jeremijenko's attention. Co-Op City is an autonomous community with multiple apartment buildings, a post office, a library, its own police precinct and parks, situated in the northeastern corner of the Bronx. It was built on swampland and landfill. Prior to becoming the community that it is today, Co-Op City was also once the site of Freedomland , an ill-fated U.S. history-themed amusement park.

Jeremijenko will lead a collection of our fifth-grade students each of whom will hack and re-construct their own robot dogs to spot high concentrations of VOCs in the Co-Op City Greenway, a public space used for performances and recreation.

After agreeing to bring Feral Robot Dogs to our school, Natalie made two visits that immediately captivated my diverse group of students. Clad in a medical coat with a duct tape red cross on the left hip pocket to indicate how precarious our environmental health is, she exhorted our kids to consider the environment as not a purely global concern.

"I don't think I can do anything about global climate change," she said. "If we think about environmental issues as health issues, about how they affect you and I and your kid sister, and your grandparents, then it's a very different thing. I value that we can do much more about environmental issues if we understand them as things here in our neighborhood."
She continued by referring to our project as "the most important design challenge," requiring our kids to use "every little bit of science and English, and history and geography and political ideology that [they] have learned and been exposed to to understand how to change things and make it better." After announcing that every child would be enlisted for this mission, Jeremijenko received applause and one brief, cheeky rejoinder from a grinning girl: "Against our will?" But there was no reluctance among any of us, — child or adult — when the time came to join the research assistants and to experiment with the robots themselves.

Robots have a peculiar mystique, offering a simulation of life coupled with the wonder of elaborate machinery. We especially enjoy animal robots. Consider Leonardo da Vinci's lion robot, given as a gift to the newly crowned King Francois I of France in 1515. The lion propelled itself toward the new sovereign and carried a rose to him in its mouth. A re-creation of the lion in a recent traveling exhibit about da Vinci's inventions still inspired the same fascination among contemporary audiences, who couldn't resist pausing to marvel at it.

Jacques de Vaucanson's Canard Digerateur, or the Digesting Duck, also created a remarkable stir in France more than two centuries later in 1793. An inventor and artist, de Vaucanson created his duck automaton that "ate" kernels of grain and defecated them. His admirers included the philosopher Voltaire, who said that without the Canard Digerateur, "you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France."

Our kids showed similar amazement as they beheld all of Jeremijenko's robots. Several of the feral dogs were there, alongside a re-wired toy car and an R2-D2 robot, all equipped with their VOC sensors and ready to enter the field for research. The dogs crawled about as the research assistants pointed out where the sensors were attached. They opened the car to display its motor and circuitry, and made R2 D2 bleep and dance in response to spoken commands. The sight of a roomful of excited children and adults excitedlyhandling and operating each robot, would likely have enthralled de Vaucanson and da Vinici.

The second visit prompted similar wonder among the class. We had our children contemplate what Jeremijenko called "the philosophy of robots" by discussing what purpose they serve. Our students began with a brainstorming exercise in which they sketched their own robots. These included a gardener robot with a crane arm for planting seeds, a butterfly robot with cameras embedded in its wings, and a robot duck that cleans water pollution and uses echolocation to find and retrieve objects beneath (How de Vaucanson would have beamed!)

After students presented their sketches, we had a discussion about whether robots were slaves or autonomous persons with their own volition. One student decided that robots were inherently slaves, which prompted one of his classmates to call him an "anti-abolitionist" — he'd been reading about the Civil War for class. The debate culminated with a general agreement with Jeremijenko's statement that robots can do anything, but that it was up to us to have them follow Issac Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics and create them to serve humankind.

We moved on to a comparison of robotic mechanisms. Jeremijenko asked us if robots with legs or wheels could move more quickly, and how both types of robots were able to move at all. Rather than discuss the problem, we answered it with a no-holds-barred race of windup toys.

The winner was a wheeled wind-up millipede that was unique among its two-legged cohorts, which included a monkey, a bird, and an assortment of other bipedal beasts. We concluded that that wheels moved more quickly than legs, and Jeremijenko asked us how legs and wheels moved.

A few students correctly inferred that the spinning wheels created motion and Jermijenko extended her arms and spun in place to demonstrate how the rotating gears inside each robot enabled them to move, and how motors start with rotary motion that they convert to forward, backward or linear motion. 

Although many ideas were discussed during the initial phase of our Feral Robot Dogs project, there remains the question of what makes these robot dogs "feral?" They're not dangerous or vicious like their live counterparts, but they do engender wildness in the finest sense, in which play and whimsy are the rule and ideas can flourish. As our children continue to become citizen scientists and environmental activists, I will offer further dispatches about our experiences. May they serve as an inspiration for makers and builders everywhere, and an open invitation to other teachers who want to join the fun and embark on their own Feral Robot Dog adventures.