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Lights, Cameras, Action!

Teaching and outreach are a really important part of our work. They help us stay connected to our local community, and give us an opportunity to see how people outside the office think about code and design. We also get to share different things we’re learning about. Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to help at both Scratch Day and a Girls Who Build workshop.

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Scratch Day celebrates the anniversary of the creation of Scratch–a programming language for kids. The all-day event at the MIT Media Lab invited kids and parents to experiment with new features of the language, meet with other Scratchers, and share work. The celebration not only introduces kids of all ages to programming, but also to MIT, and the local creative coding community.

I helped with an activity that showcased how Scratch can manipulate hardware and respond to physical surroundings. The activity, called Lightplay, consisted of a set of lights and rotating platforms hooked up to Scratch through a special set of blocks (the functions and variables of the language). Using Scratch, kids could control the color and brightness of the lights, as well as the speed and direction of the rotating platforms. There were ways to set up alternating color patterns, fading between colors, and even responses to different inputs like the volume of chatter in the room. There were also different toys and reflective objects, so kids could play with making shadows and patterns in the space.

It was amazing to see how quickly kids were able to start manipulating the lights and begin to solve their own problems like “How do I make the lights fade to red in a circle?” or “What happens when I shine both red light and blue light on an object? Will I get purple?” One of the most interesting parts was the number of parents who asked “How can I buy this, or build something similar?” The experience showed how excited the kids were to mess around with the code.

I also recently helped out at a workshop for Girls Who Build – a local group that develops open courseware and workshops on engineering for girls (our very own Leslie has developed material for it in the past!). The latest workshop focused on the intersection of computer science and photography. I gave a quick talk on image processing, and how math and computer science are combined to manipulate images for both analysis and aesthetic purposes. After the talk, the girls worked in small groups using Processing to manipulate photos they had taken.

The girls were really excited to get some insight into how some of their favorite apps, like Instagram and Snapchat, are able to produce image “filters.” A lot of the girls had never programmed before, but by the end they had all built or edited a filter in Processing. One girl even told me she was going to use her filters for all of her Instagram posts! Overall, it was incredibly satisfying to see how excited the girls were when they finally got a filter to work. More information on the workshop is available here, and soon the curriculum will be on MIT OpenCourseWare.

We see code as another tool for designers, artists, and engineers. We’re always interested in exploring new and engaging ways to teach programming, and in facilitating the use of code for creative endeavors. Both events were great examples of how creative coding can engage a wide variety of kids (and adults!) in programming. We’re looking forward to finding more opportunities to host or participate in workshops in the future. Perhaps we need a Processing day…

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Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.