How you can help pupils untangle their emotions… with robots? By Tricia Fuglestad

At the beginning of 2021, I found myself in the middle of a pandemic trying to teach students to sort out, label, and identify feelings as they learned to cope with the everchanging challenges of life during a crisis – I needed that too! I was feeling a full range of emotions as I rode the rollercoaster of Covid teaching, from remote to hybrid to full in-person, juggling dual modalities. Creating art was helping me sort through my tangled emotions.

A stroke of inspiration

I recalled The Color Monster story by Anna Llenas. It had a visual of a monster feeling many different emotions all at once as represented by scribbles of six colors all through his body. The author used color to represent these emotions: yellow was happy, green was calm, blue was sad, red was angry. I began thinking of how I could intentionally layer socialemotional learning into our art projects to help students explore color theory, expression, and how they connect to emotions. I pulled out six canvases and my paints and began designing emotional robots.

I chose robots as a subject for my project examples since it gives an opportunity for students to creatively use the features of the face to express emotions, as well as exploring shape, form, tint, and shade to enhance the illusion of 3D form.

As I looked at my final six emotional robot paintings, I realized I had a multifaceted learning resource. The final art pieces become a color wheel display with both primary and secondary colors, which is a wonderful asset to any art room. This display also doubles as a mood meter where students can identify how they are feeling at any given moment, while connecting color and facial expression to emotion. With the magic of augmented reality (AR), this display can come to life, making the static images dance with dynamic expressions of emotion, further illustrating the feelings of each robot through movement.

Step by step learning

The first step of the lesson connects regulation of emotions to artistic choices. Students are asked to randomly pick a color and then make a robot that expresses the emotion represented by that color. The randomization helps reinforce the idea that we don’t always get to pick our feelings, but when they arise, we work with them.

Secondly, students focus on transforming shape into form using three-dimensional drawing techniques and color value. Their robot portrait design includes nuts, bolts, buttons, antennae, switches, gears, and/or gauges creatively assembled into human-like portraits to express emotion.

Thirdly, every robot is painted with a monochromatic palette with contrast created through mixing shades with black, tints with white, and neutrals with gray. The individual pieces would then come together to create a full-color wheel for a beautiful and informative display.

Fourthly, students transform a photo of their final piece into a digital animation that further expresses the intended emotion. Perhaps the eyebrows rise and fall, the mouth narrows, the eyes widen, the antennae extend, the buttons blink as each artist considers the use of digital media to express emotion. My examples were made by importing the original image into a free drawing app, adding layers, matching colors, then changing a few things until I showed movement over three frames. These images were then imported into to make a simple animated GIF.

The final step in creating an emotional robot is to set up both the digital and physical aspects of the transdigital* artwork into one augmented reality experience. I use a free desktop app called Eyejack creator to upload the trigger image (original painting) and the overlay (animated GIF) to generate a QR code. This code can then be scanned by the Eyejack app on any device to make the emotional robot come to life and fully express its feelings.

Since this article, Tricia wrote a book ‘Peter O’Meter’ inspired by her work on emotional robots with her pupils. Check out our R.I.S.E. review of her story.


  • Tricia Fuglestad

    Tricia Fuglestad, a K-5 art educator for 30 years, is currently exploring storytelling through writing, illustrating, and animating augmented reality children’s books and other educational content. The Fugleflicks eBook captures 15 years of movie-making, behind the scenes, trivia, with links and embedded media so that any student could join in on the (Fugle)fun.
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