• 2014–2015 Provost's Initiatives

    "Microcontrol of a Macroworld: Physical Computing with Max and Arduino," Professors Dave Ryan and Josh Gumiela, College of Liberal Arts


    The resulting course was designed to introduce students to established and emerging practices in physical computing. Physical computing is an important and evolving area of digital media arts that explores the many ways humans interact with machines to enhance creative expression and production. Throughout the term, students employed advanced digital tools to harness real-world data, such as environmental conditions and human motion, to create and manipulate video, audio, 3D animation, and other contemporary forms of digital media. Students gained skills in electronics, programming, and design through hands-on experience designing and soldering logic circuits, interfacing sensors and actuators with Arduino microcontrollers, programming multimedia software applications, and using 3D printers to fabricate physical interfaces for their interactive creations. 

    One of the great benefits of the project is that it provided students with the tools (both physical and intellectual) to continue practicing the skills they gained in class after the end of the term, thanks to the ‘MakerKit’ each student was given as part of the course fee. The MakerKits–contained in a small toolbox–included a selection of electronic components, supplies, sensors, actuators, and an Arduino microcontroller, all of which can be assembled into a variety of projects limited only by the student’s imagination and interest.

    The course attracted a range of students from different disciplines, including Mathematics, Physics, Music, English, Philosophy, and Digital Media Arts, which highlights the interdisciplinary nature of the material. There were only 15 seats available in the class due to limitations of space and technology so the course filled up quickly. Most of the students had no prior experience with physical computing, but everyone brought a unique skill set to the table that informed class projects and exercises.

    This was a project-based class so students were assessed on their ability to take command of the technology and effectively apply it to a creative end. There were three projects total and each project was informed by short lectures covering the history, theory, artists, and artworks relevant to the task at hand. One of the biggest takeaways was witnessing the appetite our students have for creating novel digital tools, which in turn allow them to express themselves and their ideas in unique ways. It’s apparent that our students are keenly aware of the increasing rapidity at which today’s digital media landscape is evolving. As new and disruptive technologies take root, novel forms of creative expression and problem solving are quickly adopted within all disciplines, from the arts to engineering to the natural sciences and beyond­–this interdisciplinarity is evident in the range of students who signed up for the course. We’ve seen that Hamline students aren’t satisfied as mere passive consumers of these emerging technologies. Instead, they’re hungry to actively engage with new technology at its inception, which gives them agency in shaping their future as they transition from a digital to a post-digital world.

    Suggested Next Steps:

    This course will be taught again during J-term 2016 so it’ll be refined based upon what we learned during this first run. We plan to focus on collaborative projects between students as well as collaborative opportunities between students and the Hamline-Midway community at large. Due to technical logistics, this kind of work is often ephemeral by nature and it is thus difficult to replicate certain experiences in the classroom. One way to give our students the full experience of immersive and interactive artwork is through field trips to the Walker or other local art galleries. Another way would be to bring in guest artists, including Hamline faculty, provided they would be able to install their work ahead of time so that it may be viewed and discuss by the class in context.

    We would like to eventually make this a semester length course, as the breadth of the material is difficult to cover in just four weeks. This would allow us to spend more time developing each project and incorporate a greater depth of experience; students tend to make better work once they’re familiar and comfortable with the tools, which is best accomplished through regular, sustained practice. We will also continue expanding upon the technology and tools in the MakerLab, especially in the realm of digital fabrication, but also in terms of what we include in the MakerKits. Speaking in terms of long-term growth, the amount of space we have to support the MakerLab is limited, not only in terms of classroom space, but also in exhibition space. In its current space the Physical Computing course cannot support more than 15 students per class and it’s very tight when the room is full. We will also eventually need more room for equipment and technology–again primarily in the realm of digital fabrication.

    As mentioned above, exhibiting this kind of work presents many logistical challenges, especially the time required to install work and having a space with enough room to exhibit work for extended periods of time (i.e. several days as opposed to one night only). We plan to incorporate a public exhibition of works created in the class so that students can gain practice installing their work and solving all of the logistical and technical challenges that come with it. We also plan to document student work in photo and video, which is important for student portfolios and for publicizing the class. Documentation needs to be done at two stages: first, as the work is being created and second, when the work is finished and installed for exhibition. One way to capture quality documentation would be to hire a student worker to visit class during studio days to shoot photos and video. That same worker could also document the final exhibition of the class and produce a video for publicity and archival purposes. It would be very helpful if we could hire a teaching assistant who has already taken the class to undertake documentation duties as well as assist students and day-to-day operations of the class. 

    Another important step will be encouraging students to use the tools and skills they’ve learned outside of the regular Physical Computing class. In other words, we need to see more students incorporating this technology into their creative projects for other classes, collaborations, and experiments. As more students are able to take the physical computing class, more students will incorporate that knowledge into their work. We might also explore options for incorporating physical computing into other classes, such as Advanced Video and Intro to DMA.

    Finally, we will not schedule the course in the morning again. We thought we had the students’ best interest in mind with a morning schedule but as the term wore on many students began missing class or arriving late due to oversleeping. The class would be better suited for an afternoon or evening schedule.