Published: June 8, 2021

A girl stands at a table arranging objects.Children gather around a table filled with objects—multi-colored clear plastic cups, a sieve, foil wrapping paper and toys are joined by paper cutouts of fantastic tree houses, animals and buildings. These are arranged, rearranged and lit up with lights of different colors that the children manipulate using a simple coding platform. They drag and drop elements onto an iPad and push buttons to facilitate the interplay of light and shadow. The results are spectacular and immediate. It’s called ‘Digital Light Play’ and it’s introducing coding in a whole new way. 

Thoughts of computer programming usually don't conjure up the words creative, playful, exploratory and fun. But that’s something Ricarose Roque, assistant professor in the Information Science department at the University of Colorado Boulder, seeks to change with something she calls “computational tinkering.” 

“We’re treating code as any other material like paint, paper, and pencils. And, if you create something that matters to you, it builds on your interests. That’s an entry point to STEM,” says Roque. 

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Creative Communities research group, led by Roque, recently won a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In collaboration with the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio and the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT, the team will create family friendly coding resources. They will work with informal learning spaces such as museums, libraries and community centers to bring these resources to the public and specifically engage diverse youth and families. A woman arranges items on a table and uses an iPad to control lights.

“To welcome groups that have been historically marginalized in computing, we’re trying to reimagine what learning with code can look like,” said Roque. “We believe it happens best when you are building and making things that you care about with other people. That might mean making a musical instrument, creating art, and even telling a story.”

Storytelling, says Roque, is specifically culturally relevant. She encourages learners to use their own backgrounds, experience, and family relationships and make them visible by creating stories using computing. 

“It’s more than just ‘doing the activity’. We’re engaging people who have historically been marginalized,” says Roque. “We want to create an experience with computing where they feel recognized because when you traditionally think about computing, you think about white men.”

Research and development for the project began in the fall of 2020 and took on a sense of urgency as families were left struggling amid lockdowns and school closures. But, the pandemic created some unexpected opportunities. They had planned to engage educators across the country and the move to remote work made these connections easier. Online activities for families provided a way to connect with people with transportation struggles and rural families who are not able to easily reach a library or community center. 

“We plan to explore and create computational tinkering opportunities that kids and families can do at home together,” says Natalie Rusk, who leads MIT’s contribution to the project. 

Whether people are exploring at home, in a library, community center or museum, the team hopes to demystify coding for thousands of people by expanding the definition of what people think of as code and who codes, and also learn how to code. Ultimately, because technology permeates life—from how we play to how we connect—the goal is for children and families to understand that people created those technologies and, says Roque, they can, too.

This award is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, award #2005764.