Community Spotlight: Eyebeam

Kristina Gorr

Mozilla’s mission is to ensure a healthy and equitable Internet for all. Mozilla’s partnerships and connections in the community bring the fabric of our work together through five key issues designed to support the health of the Internet: privacy and security, open innovation, decentralization, web literacy and digital inclusion.Every month we feature one inspirational organization or individual doing work at the intersection of these. For December, we are proud to spotlight  Hive NYC member Eyebeam, which merges arts and technology to teach the web in groundbreaking ways. Based in New York City, Eyebeam is a nonprofit studio for collaborative experiments with technology.

“Eyebeam’s core philosophy is ‘technology, by artists’. Throughout our history, many of our residents have created workshops and learning tools as a natural extension to share their research with a larger community.“ – Lauren Gardner, Eyebeam

We asked Lauren Gardner, Community Engagement Associate at Eyebeam, and Kaho Abe and Ramsey Nasser, Eyebeam Impact Residents and Playable Fashion’s Co-Directors, to share more about this dynamic, ground-breaking, avant garde organization. Here’s what they had to say:

How did Eyebeam get its start?

Eyebeam was founded as a non-profit in 1997, by John S. Johnson. It was conceived as the studio dedicated to technology by artists.

Through awarding generous residencies, Eyebeam has helped artists make conceptual breakthroughs in technology. The very first “share” button was developed in Eyebeam as the ReBlog, and platforms like del.icio.us got their start here too. Creative coding frameworks such as Open Frameworks and p5.js were supported at an early stage here, as were creative electronics enterprises like the “Lego for electronics” startup littleBits and the NYC-based distributor AdaFruit.

Alums from the residencies can “open source” their practice by becoming teachers in our innovative teen education programs. Digital Day Camp, Rap Research Lab, and, of course, Playable Fashion, are just some of the results of their work. We joke that we’re one of the best incubators on the East Coast—without trying to be.

Playable Fashion Weekend - Buzzkill Module Photo provided by Eyebeam.

Playable Fashion Weekend – Buzzkill Module Photo provided by Eyebeam.

How did the Playable Fashion project with Hive NYC get started?

Kaho Abe is an artist and former Eyebeam Fellow who combined her professional background in fashion and electronics into an art practice building custom, wearable game controllers. Having taught at multiple NYC universities and k-12 through workshops facilitated with Eyebeam, we sought additional funding to continue offering workshops and received a grant in 2012 specifically for Fashion through the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund at New York Community Trust. During the first year, Kaho and artist Sarah Schoemann initially tested the waters with a weekend workshop where about 40 youth attended, followed by the whole afterschool program. Since 2013, Playable Fashion has been taught and developed by Kaho and former Eyebeam Fellow, educator and game designer Ramsey Nasser.

The success of the initial workshop inspired us to continue by developing a full afterschool program which has served over 400 under-resourced youth through after-school programs at Eyebeam and workshops throughout the city at alternative learning spaces like Brooklyn Public Library, New York Hall of Science, Bronx Museum and NYC Parks Resource Centers. Initially taught as a full program, Playable Fashion is now developed as separate “modules” which can be taught together or as stand alone workshops and consist of:

  • Buzz Kill – An introduction to Wearable Game Controllers, student make customizable clapping glove game controllers and mod video game code.
  • Game Literacy – Students learn to think and talk like a game designer through playing games and discussing them.
  • Abstract Electronic Toys – An exploration of electronics and wearables with some hands on hardware hacking and modding. This module is a stepping stone to ‘Fashion in Depth’
  • Fashion in Depth – Hands-on exploration of sewing, soft circuits, programing microcontrollers, and LEDs.
  • World’s Slowest Computer – An embodied exercise to learn the fundamentals in computational thinking and computer hardware as a stepping stone before ‘Coding in Depth’.
  • Coding in Depth – An in-depth exploration into the industry standard game development stack of the day.
  • Brainstorming – Brainstorming exercises designed to emphasize consensus, collaboration and the representation of ideas.
  • Game Jam – Exploring the production process to get a game done.
  • Next Steps – Suggestions on how students can keep learning even when the program is over.

Tell us more about the World’s Slowest Computer. Where did the idea originate? What impact did it have on students?

Coding is often introduced without referencing the essential computational thinking behind it, and the relationship between hardware and code. So we created a lesson in our afterschool program to be a stepping stone to programming, which is covered later. In this exercise, youth participants in the workshop embody the parts and functions of a computer, creating a visceral, tactile experience with the foundations of computer science.

Participants are grouped into small teams, around 5 people each, with each team acting as a computer. Each team is given sixteen memory cells (represented by post-its and markers) and a 10×10 display (represented by a 10×10 grid of two colored sponges). Teams then receive identical booklets of instructions written in a human-readable “sponge-computing” language. Each page is numbered and contains one instruction. Participants work to execute the instructions as quickly and correctly as possible, competing against other teams to draw the right their 10×10 sponge-screens before anyone else.

Once all teams have an image on their sponge-grid monitor we review, note similarities and differences between results, and declare a winner. Every team’s time is recorded, and we also announce their clock speed in Hz (usually around 0.02Hz). The after-activity discussion is aided by an online sponge-computer-emulator (currently a prototype), which can debug identical programs in an interactive digital tool. This is an effective way to work through unexpected results.

Comparing results from the online emulator, which are generated in milliseconds, to what takes participants dozens of minutes to achieve helps connect the participants’ visceral experience to the actual execution of code on a modern computer. This serves as a powerful reference point when we teach programming later. When students encounter loops in JavaScript, for example, they do so having had the physical experience of executing the same construct, making it that much less abstract.

“The similarity of the experience left me feeling that we had genuinely experienced/performed a form of computation and observed it from the inside.” — Max Fowler, Participant from the School For Poetic Computation.

Sponge Computer. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

Sponge Computer. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

What do you hope educators and youth will take away from your events and workshops?

Aside from the goal of sharing our content online, we run teacher workshop events, providing an opportunity for educators to experience the content and discuss ways in which the content can be integrated into their own curriculum. We recognize that many teachers have their own unique experiences and rich teaching backgrounds to offer, and that’s why instead of sharing our program as an entire afterschool program, we have broken it up into “modules” that allow teachers to take parts of the content so that it is easier to adapt.

One of our goals is that the youth continue to learn even after the program is over. We have a whole module dedicated to “Next Steps” that teaches students how to join communities and participate in open source once our limited time together is done. We want our students to keep making games, writing code, and hacking hardware for the rest of their lives. Our hope is that continued curiosity and growth will ultimately lead these students to develop a more critical, informed and active role in technology and its use in the world around us.

Youth demonstrating abstract electronic toy. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

Youth demonstrating abstract electronic toy. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

Why is computer science and coding so important for youth?

Computational and systems thinking is a crucial skill to make sense of the world around us. Whether or not students will go on to write software in any capacity, they will live in a world controlled by it, and understanding its fundamentals is a prerequisite to critical engagement with society.

Computer science and coding are distinct skills although they tend to be talked about and taught as the same thing. Computational thinking does not depend on knowledge of any particular programming language, so we design activities that give each skill the focus and time it deserves to build a deeper understanding around how computers work.  

As technology becomes a bigger part of our lives — and the tools and systems around us become more locked down by corporations — knowledge, curiosity and the ability to think critically becomes more important than ever. Many young people are growing up in a world where programmable computers and the open web are not the norm, replaced instead by proprietary mobile devices and walled-garden social media platforms. This trend is no accident; the stock market consistently rewards companies who become gatekeepers of so-called “app stores”. In this environment, understanding how computers and technology work at a fundamental level is the only way to engage with it safely, with dignity, and as a producer rather than the consumers most technology expects us to be.

How is Eyebeam inspiring others to teach digital skills in their community?

Eyebeam not only supports artists and their practice through residencies, but also encourages artists to become more active in their communities through sharing via public engagement, activism or education. In this way, the organization develops and nurtures teaching artists. Eyebeam recognizes that teaching artists can provide powerful learning content, passing on passion and depth of knowledge, as their curriculum reflects their unique practice.

What’s next for Eyebeam?

Eyebeam’s core philosophy is ‘technology, by artists’. Throughout our history, many of our residents have created workshops and learning tools as a natural extension to share their research with a larger community. It was never a requirement of the residency program but the fact that this kept happening made us realize that education is integral to both our mission and to our artist’s practice, they inform each other.

Eyebeam is interested in answering questions like: What is the role of the teaching artist in informal and formal education? In CS- or technology-related initiatives? What are the most effective methods and techniques of sharing teaching content with other educators? Online? Live workshops? Professional development? A mix of them all? How can we cater to educators with diverse and varied understandings of technology? How do we create more evergreen content that stands the test of time in our ever-changing technological landscape?  And what role can Eyebeam play in supporting teachers and educators who want to continue their own inquiries as this intersection of art and computer science grows?

Sponge Computer Activity. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

Sponge Computer Activity. Photo provided by Eyebeam.

How can others get involved?

We are looking for opportunities to work with other institutions to share these workshops with students, teachers, facilitators and educators. Feedback from a wider community is vital for us to continue development as we want to make this material as accessible as possible. Please contact us if this sounds like something you’d like to be part of, thank you!

Eyebeam and Playable Fashion would like to thank and acknowledge the support from our funders The Pinkerton Foundation, Capital One and from National Writing Project’s Educator Innovator Initiative and the LRNG Innovation Challenge, part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign.

To learn more about Eyebeam, visit eyebeam.org; follow them on Facebook and Twitter for provocative events and ideas, and see the residents’ point of view on Instagram.

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