Outside the box: Mike and Ann Eisenberg and Craft Technology

Thursday 08 January 2009 at 22:45

Early last month, Mike Eisenberg presented a colloquium entitled Rethinking Educational Technology: Some Early Steps. His talk could hardly have come at a better time, considering my recent excitement about possibilites for Columbine's new building. Here are a few of the important ideas I took away from his talk.

He described the conventional wisdom around educational technology as "applied cognative science." How can we find the right way to present computer science so that it takes hold in kids minds? These ideas are all good, he says, but secondary. Many kids are simply not motivated by this stuff and they secretly know that their friends will like them less for knowing it. He proposes we look anthropologically at children and search for places where computation could enhance their culture. He offered suggestions in six different areas: hangouts, economies, rooms, rituals, displays, and buddies. I'll cover only a few of these.


Kids collect coins, or baseball cards, or these days Pokemon and Magic cards. I collected a lot of Lego bricks, and polyhedral dice, and DnD books, and spatial puzzles (rubic's cubes, interlocking blocks, get-the-ring-off-the-frame). My friends collected clothes with their favorite team's mascots or comic books. These things seem to have longevity (e.g. most of my friends and I either still have our collections or are still adding to them), and a sense of rarity (Magic and Pokemon totally get the importance of rarity).

How can we enhance these kinds of collectibles with computation? Back in the 1980's there were collections of Transformers where if you had a complete set, they would interconnect into a super Transformer. Integrated circuits have gotten small enough that they are already being embeded in toys. But what if they do something more when connected together? What if there are intentionally rare elements that make the collection more compelling? He mentioned specifically examples of quilts or murals or perhaps the rarity could come from personally fabricated items.


The whole room should be an object of design. Rooms reflect the self. We collect souvenirs, trophies, mementos, and symbols of progress. Curtains, carpets, mobiles, and wallpaper could all be computationally enhanced. Among other scientists, he quoted the recollections of an astronomer who fondly remembered watching the stars and moon move across the window of her bedroom at night. Could we encourage kids to create custom Stonehenges in their rooms tracking the passage of time and the movement of stars?

Here he presented a few videos of work done by students in his Craft Technology Lab

In this first example, the program for a small robot car is written with barcode squares placed on the floor: code road

This second example, LaserBall, takes a little more explaining. The students place magnetic shapes on a whiteboard and project a digital image onto the whiteboard. They use a laser pointer to create digital balls that become part of the projected simulation. The digital balls projected on the screen fall down the screen and bounce of the physical magnetic tiles on the board. The students are able to move the physical tiles and the simulation responds accordingly. This text description doesn't really stand on its own either. But it should make more clear what's happening when you watch the video.

Rooms could also use magnetic and conductive paints with snapon computer components to do similar kinds of computation. This might be hard to visualize until you've explored some of the work at the Craft Computing Lab (see some of the links below).

Not the computer you grew up with

I especially like that both of these examples (and many others happening at the Craft Computing Lab) take computation well beyond keyboards, mice and displays. They're not even mobile phones. Particularly compelling examples abound in the work of Leah Buechley

The folks at the Craft Technology Lab are making computationally enhanced cultural artifacts. There are many examples that might draw computational thinking into children's culture. Clothing, toys, games, cases for ipods. Possibility.