OK Go Sandbox: Damian Kulash on how the band inspired students...with some Minnesota help


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Damian Kulash of OK Go. (courtesy OK Go)
Damian Kulash on OK Go Sandbox: Part 1
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This is a topic that I've wanted to cover while the school year is still happening. Students and parents have certainly heard of STEM curriculum: so science, technology, engineering, mathematics. But what about the arts? How do art and science relate? How do they intersect? You want a great example in the music world? Watch an OK Go video.

I very recently heard about a collaborative project between the University of St. Thomas Playful Learning Lab and the band OK Go, and it's called the OK Go Sandbox. To talk more about it, I called Damian Kulash from the band OK Go.

Jill Riley: Okay, the OK Go Sandbox. Give us an overview of what it is. How did it start?

Damian Kulash: It's really fun. Let's put it this way, you don't start a rock band, thinking you're gonna wind up in classrooms. It's almost the exact opposite, you know. But obviously there's a nerdy streak that runs through us or, perhaps, is us. It's where I find the most wonder in the world...or rather, that sense of wonder in the world is what makes me want to make stuff in the first place. So our videos, they turn out to be pretty good teaching tools, because the things we need to make them are a sort of sense of curiosity and basic learning about a whole bunch of different stuff, whether it's math, or science, or color, or music or literature.

And we've been getting these e-mails and actual snail mails from teachers, saying that they had they use our stuff in their classrooms, and that ramped up to such a degree that we sort of started to feel guilty that we weren't supporting it in a more active way. You don't make songs and put them out in the world thinking they're going to do that. You know, you hope that if you're really lucky, that you know a couple of your songs, get someone feeling less lonely or feeling a little bit more connected to the world or feeling like somebody hears them in their particularly bad mood today. But you definitely don't think you're going to come back being like, I've been out there teaching basic physics.

So we just started a collaboration with the Playful Learning Lab, which is, of course, in the Twin Cities, University of St. Thomas, an undergraduate lab called the Playful Learning Lab, where they do learning tools and playful teaching tools. So we started something with them called the OK Go Sandbox, where we make lesson plans and other teacher support videos and classroom challenges, that kind of stuff based on our videos.

It's been going for years and getting more and more use every year. But this year with the pandemic, suddenly digital teaching tools like that became really, really important. Huge, huge boost in people using it. And after we unrelatedly released a song last year, a pandemic based song called "All Together Now," schools started doing their own versions of it and asking for the sheet music to it. And we were like, that's a great idea. We should just invite everybody to work on versions of the song together, and we thought we'd get a few hundred people signing up to be part of it. But 15,000 people wound up signing up.

That's incredible.

Yeah, it's, it's really crazy. And the work really was done entirely by the students in that lab and by a bunch of really, really dedicated artists and musicians who helped arrange and produce and sort of co-lead the whole thing together. But we really can't take any credit for ourselves. I mean, it really is this incredible sort of collaborative project that we got to sit back and watch happen. And we're just we're so proud to be able to present it to the world now.

I love that you use the word sandbox, because there's something playful about that experimentation. And if it's not perfect, you knock it down and start all over again.

Yeah, I mean, we've found through this process of sort of like charting the course across education by accident, that one of the hardest things to communicate to younger people is that you're not supposed to get it right the first time. In fact, if you get something right the first time, it probably wasn't enough of a challenge. And none of our videos, none of our songs, none of the art we make is ever right the first time. It's always trial and error and happy accidents and sort of discovering things as you go along. So the sandbox metaphor is barely even a metaphor for us because it's really how we make make everything and kind of figure out the domain in which we want to play and then we play...and play and play and play and play, until we have a sort of set of tricks we like enough to make them into an art piece, whether it's a video or a song, or in this case, a science project.

I was at the website okgosandbox.org. When you click on the lessons tab, you go through some song titles because then you're able to access the videos. So you've got "Upside Down and Inside Out," which, you know, it's like this is art! You want to talk about the intersection of art and physics. I mean, this is a great example. So you know, people can can watch the music video, watch the making. And then there are actual lessons about the science at work here. But then what's nice is that there's a section here where then the students can experiment.

One thing we know is that we don't know how everybody is learning out there, or where they're learning or what will best serve them. So we just asked teachers and parents to send us in their requests. And if they asked for lesson plans, we try to put together lesson plans. If they asked for classroom challenges, we try to put classroom challenges together. And that's where the Playful Learning Lab has been so incredibly helpful, because these are people who are studying education, and know how to help build those requests.

You know, as a rock band, we're making stuff full time and we're we're always chasing our next song or our next video, or our next tour or our next project on whatever plane. And so it was hard for us to figure out a way that we could be more supportive. We can't make the videos we make any faster than we already do. When you've got people who can sort of organize the collective voice of a lot of teachers, like the Playful Learning Lab is so good at doing, it's a fun and completely novel way to us, at least, for working.

During this past year, I think I've been playing the song on the radio, "This Too Shall Pass" probably just as many times as I played it when it first came out. It has such a great message for the time that we're living in. Going back and watching that video now — I know that there were two different versions of the video, but I'm talking about the Rube Goldberg machine version. Just just thinking about all the work and collaboration that went into that video, and how you as the band are on the creative side with writing the music, recording the music, I'm sure generating plenty of ideas for for how the video is going to go. But then the amount of science needed for something like that...it's pretty incredible.

It's interesting to hear you say "the creative side," because there is no side that is not creative. That video in particular, we started that with the idea that we were paying for it ourselves, and we could maybe afford one engineer. Maybe we could hire him for a month or so. We put a job posting up on a local to Los Angeles sort of nerd art board and a group of 12 engineers together responded saying, "We want to do this." And we said, "Well, look, we can't afford 12 of you." And they said, well, just pay us like it's one." And by the end of that six-month period that we built that machine over, there were dozens and dozens of people involved.

It's just so fun to get in a room full of stuff and try to build a machine like that, if you're able to strip away the expectations of a sort of result-based project — "No, we need this by this date" — but instead make it about, "Hey, we all want to get together and make something truly extraordinary and just play until it until we can figure out the way it turns a job into so much fun." I mean, I remember my dad coming down to visit us while we were building the machine. My dad's a retired engineer himself. I was like, you should come down and check this out. And he's like, oh, I'll stop by for a minute. And he basically didn't leave for for a week. Like, once he showed up, it was just like, look at all these toys. It's just like the biggest box of Legos you've ever seen. You know, if we just play it and play it and play it. It was so much fun.

Like how many times did it take to get it right?

That was 80-something takes...I can't remember if it was 85 or 89. I always get it mixed up. But most of those stopped in the initial string of dominoes. You know, one way that that physics in geometry helped us and that video is that we wanted the emotional arc of it to get bigger and bigger and bigger so that you you start small and it just keeps growing. And as you grow, you get these larger and larger interactions and those larger and larger interactions are also easier to plan and more consistent. So you know, you knock down a set of dominoes, and they will fall differently every single time, but when you drop a piano from the ceiling, it lands in the same place every time. More or less, the least predictable and most inconsistent part of the video was right at the beginning. So we'd start the camera, start the machine more than nine times out of ten it would fail basically, and the few times that it would get past that it would get easier and easier or rather more and more, more and more likely to succeed as it went along. So we I think we got to the bottom floor of that only like three or five times it's so long ago now that I can't remember but it was only a handful of times and and most of those got all the way to the end.

Who knew that this whole kind of virtual world would take off in such a way? But it was like, "Okay, how are we going to teach in this in this climate?" I've got to give a big shout out to teachers and educators for for finding a way to make it work in the past year.

There are no greater heroes. I mean, there were no greater heroes before the pandemic. And as if teachers in America weren't already underappreciated and underpaid and underloved, last year just made it that much harder. To see the amount of creativity and amount of resourcefulness and the amount of just sheer love that has gone into keeping our children well served during this time...it's just breathtaking.

I remember reading that you were talking about your experience with COVID-19. How are you doing? Did you make a full recovery? Have you had any sort of after effects?

My wife and I and our toddler twins had COVID, very early on. Before lockdown even started in LA, we were in the first batch of people in Southern California, and it was very, very scary. I had a fairly quick recovery, my wife had a harder time; she was in the hospital briefly. At that time, nobody knew what this was. And so it was really, really scary. And we did make full recovery, she has had some more lasting effects, her symptoms will sort of seem to come back every once in a while, which we believe to be like, you know, if she's exposed to anything, like, you know, common cold type thing, her system goes like no, no! Both of us have been vaccinated now and hope that that will help with the long term effects. We'll just have to see.

I will say that it there was something nice about having gotten it over with early on in the pandemic, because there was a type of sort of anxiety hanging over a lot of my friends that was not over us. We were in the same lockdown as everybody else, but it felt a little bit less...like we at least knew it wasn't coming for us in the same way it seemed to be for everyone else.

And our neighborhood also was very, very supportive of one another. We wrote the song called "All Together Now" inspired by the nightly cheering from our balcony, and the open windows of our neighbors for the frontline workers. It seemed to me to be something more than just for the doctors and the health care workers. You know, I read this article by Rebecca Solnit, who is a great thinker on such things, about what the pandemic could teach us about hope, and I was very struck by her idea that when the world breaks like this, terrible things happen, but it also allows for really good things to happen that haven't before. Things we couldn't think about two years ago are suddenly happening because the status quo is just gone. And hearing our this sense of hope from our own neighbors, this kind of like we're all here for each other, you know, we value our compassion for one another more than we do than sort of normalcy of our lives. It was a beautiful thing during a very difficult time. And so as tough as this year has been, it's also been very uplifting.

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