The Grammy Award-winning rock band — Damian Kulash, Tim Nordwind, Andy Ross and Elmhurst native Dan Konopka — has long been known for putting catchy songs to innovative and creative videos. But when band members started pulling back the curtain showing how the videos were made, a different group took notice.
“Over the last few years, educators were coming to us and saying, ‘The physical principles and scientific things happening in your videos are really great teaching tools,'” said Konopka, OK Go’s drummer.
Teachers from kindergarten through eighth grade were emailing the group regularly with comments and questions, he said, and telling them about how they would do projects based on the Rube Goldberg machine in the “This Too Shall Pass” video in their physics and math classes.
The members of OK Go took the hint. Working with AnnMarie Thomas, a professor at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, the school’s Playful Learning Lab and a team of talented crew and editors, the band created OK Go Sandbox, a collection of videos and lesson plans introducing the concepts touched on in the music videos.
“This was before we were in the father mindset, the parent mindset,” Konopka said. “But as we started having kids it became pretty clear that ‘Wow, this is something we could run with!'”
Each “episode” of OK Go Sandbox zooms in on one of the band’s music videos and features a behind-the-scenes look at how it was made, along with short lessons in math, physics, science, art and engineering led by the band members. For example, the episode featuring “The Writing’s On the Wall” — a video that relies on visual trickery — shows how the brain processes optical illusions, discusses anamorphic illusions in art, explains how props were created and includes a video where Konopka and bandmate Tim Nordwind work together to create a folded-paper illusion similar to one in the music video. Students can follow the steps to create their own science project at home or in the classroom.
The lesson plans and videos are free and available for anybody’s use at OKGoSandbox.org. But with band members acting as teachers, the videos are fun for adults, too.
“It’s a mega testament to how nerdy we are,” Konopka said, laughing. “For the first half of our career it was really about trying to make us seem cool. The relationships we had with the music industry were like, ‘Can you guys look cooler?’ … But we’re deep down inside all super nerds. Now we feel at home because we’re making stuff and talking about microgravity, so the cat’s out of the bag.”
Konopka, who graduated from and still visits York High School in Elmhurst when he returns to town to see family, admitted he wasn’t the best student in math, but he was always interested in science. Frontman Damien Kulash, however, was the real fan.
“Damian is really into that in-depth math and problem solving in that sciency way. So it’s something that was a big part of his life,” Konopka said.
“And then when we sort of allowed ourselves to make the kind of videos that really inspired us, it just seemed like the core geekiness was resonating,” he added. “And when teachers started chiming in, it just became such a natural move to sort of exploit that part of the artistry, which is something that we all really liked. It wasn’t really the first and foremost thing — that was a rock video, right? But that’s also part of our identity.”
And what more important thing can a band do than use its music for good — to teach, to show kids that learning can be playful and being smart can also be fun?
“This is amazing, and it feels right,” Konopka said. “It feels authentic, and I think that’s what matters most.”