This summer I taught Python programming and various topics in media arts to 4th through 8th-grade children in Walnut, California. One exciting thing I discovered was that there exists an amazing diversity of resources to teach these subject to grade-school aged kids. For instance, with Computer Science Unplug we learned about everything from hash tables, to intractability, to the Turing Test. I also invented some exercises of my own: To learn conditional control flow we made “choose-your-own-adventure” stories with huge nested trees of if-then statements. Another time, for a unit on AI and the Turing Test, the class performed its own test with one student relaying answers from the Jabberwocky chat-bot to provide a counterpart to our human subject.

Resources for interactive installation art are no less available. I want to highlight two examples of projects that were largely designed and built by my students.

Flower Chimes

The Flower Chimes were made using the MaKey MaKey kit that was recently a subject of a crowd-funding campaign by MIT graduate Jay Silver. Basically, this little circuit board allows you to transform any conductive material into a switch that a computer interprets as a key click.

Initially students planed to create an “electronic wind chime” using fresh flowers. The idea was for the flowers to complete the MaKey MaKey’s electrical circuit whenever the wind caused them to touch. This would trigger playback of a digital sound file sound preloaded on a connected laptop. As a work of installation art and kinetic sculpture, the Flower Chimes were intended to be both visually and audibly quirky—an artifact of nature interacting causally in ways never before experienced by the viewer!

Unfortunately, the class discovered early on that most flowers did not conduct enough electricity to complete an electrical circuit. However, undeterred, several middle school students proposed that metal foil roses could replaces a certain number of the fresh flowers. Thanks to the heroic flower-manufacturing efforts of several fifth-grad students, the class completed a beautiful version of the Flower Chimes in time for the first Foundry Academy Open House of the summer.

Music Shoes

Another fantastic resource is the Little Bits modular synthesizer kit who’s bad-ass founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir gave a very good TED talk a few years ago that compares Little Bits to the history of modular building materials such as preformed concrete blocks and LEGOs.

For A Beat for the Feet, our wearable electronic instrument, students designed, prototyped, and tested everything from the placement of the pressure sensors to the design of the little bits instruments. We loved how this project got every student involved in being creative with sound. We talked about what it means for a sound to be expressive, and we discussed the kinds of sounds we hear in the environment around us and how these sounds make us feel. Many students have never considered sound on an academic level or outside of music lessons. In fact, these questions are at the heart of an academic field called “acoustic ecology,” the study of sounds as they relate to humans and other living things! A Beat For the Feat was also a part of Foundry Academy’s initiative to get more girls involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. As part of a unit on wearable technology, the students got an introduction to electrical circuits, and A Beat For the Feat was a great way to demonstrate the power of circuits in an accessible and hand-on context! Children in the younger grade levels in particular approached the shoes with a great deal of curiosity. It is, after all, many students first experience of wearing a piece of technology that responds creatively to their movements.

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