Public Lab Research note

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Environmental Data Comedy workshop at Middlebury College

by kanarinka |

What I want to do

As you can see from the above video, I've been working on a prototype of a talking flower that uses the Riffle water logger, combines the water data with current weather conditions, and then proceeds to tell very bad jokes using that data as comedy material.

I've been wanting to experiment with more DIY talking forms and to see if this is a good way to engage young people (particularly those from non-technical fields) in learning about water science. Could people learn about water science and then turn it into comedy? Could environmental data be funny? Or is it funny because it's really not funny? Or is it just not funny at all and we should stop talking about it altogether?

My attempt and results

I was invited to do a workshop for Gigi Gatewood's "Methods & Mysteries: The Science of Art" class at Middlebury College. There are 13 undergraduates in the class who are majoring in everything from Neuroscience to Architecture. First, we talked about DIY water science, the complexity of measuring water quality and conductivity as a kind of early warning indicator of system health. The students then worked in groups to build Coquís which are like Riffle starter-kits:



They were stars - everyone got their Coqui up and running in less than 30 minutes. Each student had brought in water samples from around the college ranging from dirty snow to tap water to hot tea water from the cafeteria to lake water. We discussed why tap water might have higher conductivity than bottled water, why water with dirt might have lower conductivity than clear lake water, and why super murky, salty water needs a higher capacitor in order to get the Coquí to make any sound at all.

Then, we shifted gears into exploring Environmental Data Comedy. Each group had laser cut a box and their charge was to turn their box into a "talking creature" of some kind and to use a bluetooth speaker to have the creature speak jokes about water quality and weather. We used JBL bluetooth speakers and the Chrome Select and Speak browser extension (in which you can highlight text and your computer will speak it). Here you can see prompt document and some of the jokes that the groups wrote.

In about 1/2 hour the students came up with some great characters and concepts. A nervously talking rock. A creepy guy indiscriminately hitting on the listener. A mutated frog. A Gilly-like Middlebury student. An insulting dweeb throwing out "yo water" jokes. Here are some of the videos:

Questions and next steps

The students raised some interesting questions about where such objects would be sited. For example, we noted that Creepy George would become pretty annoying if placed on a beach where people were trying to relax. And any of them might be seen as disturbing the nature-peace in outdoor sites. We thought the creatures might work as good, slightly obnoxious guides to superfund sites or one student suggested interpretive trails like the Robert Frost trail where hikers go expecting some extra experience that adds to the outdoors. The site is a piece that needs some deep thinking, as site and context are so important to making truly awesome comedy (I think? But what do i know??).

My own reflection is that it may take some work for the uninitiated to really make funny jokes from things like turbidity and conductivity. I'm thinking of next convening a workshop of hydrologists and comedy writers to see what they might come up with and if they might have something to teach each other.

Another reflection is that we need to update the Coquí documentation with better images and supporting visuals. More work on that soon.

water-quality-monitoring water-quality riffle coqui riffle-examples


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