Cultivating the Skill of Creative Computing - An Interview with Luke Woodbury

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Luke Woodbury is a visiting lecturer for Creative Computing at Bath Spa University, specialising in coding, electronics and IoT related seminars to undergraduate students. One of the more elaborate projects delivered by Luke was the creation of a network of embedded devices that communicate with each other, creating a generative sequence of light and sound. We spoke with Luke about the course, the takeaways and challenges of undertaking these types of projects in class as well as the role of IoT in education.

Luke Woodbury

Luke Woodbury, visiting lecturer for Creative Computing at Bath Spa University.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a creative technologist and work on art projects involving technology. I create educational, assistive and multi-sensory resources in a special needs school (Threeways School in Bath) and do some guest lecturing in higher education. I am into physical computing, where the digital and physical world collide and have an interest in modelling natural systems and emergent behaviour. I studied music technology at university and then got into the installation art side of things whereby I began immersing myself in coding and electronics.

How did you get involved in teaching at Bath Spa University?

I had been speaking to Lee Scott, the course leader for Creative Computing, about what we do at Threeways school and my interest in IoT and embedded systems. He mentioned that the course was collaborating with element14 and asked if I would like to run some workshops as a visiting lecturer.

Tell us about Creative Computing

With regards to creative computing as a process - digital design, animation, web development, music technology and digital art all have their own vocations. However, the ability to think creatively, to follow core design principles and to break things down into smaller components like a coder are exceptionally useful skills for most areas of your life. I have found that working with users with alternative and incredibly varying needs has required and stimulated a creative and empathic thought process that has benefitted me greatly. Creative Computing at Bath Spa University is a fantastic course, the digital creativity skills that it teaches are paramount to equipping young people for employment now and in the future.

Tell us about your project. How did you come up with it?

As mentioned, I am interested in modelling natural and emergent systems and this project is an attempt to start creating one. In this project, we have individual nodes doing simple things and following simple rules, but they are speaking to each other and passing messages that they translate into light and sound. The hope is that more complicated and interesting behaviour comes out of the system as a whole; something perhaps that we had not expected. I wanted to explore the concept of giving each node a ‘personality’ and indeed the aesthetics of communication breakdown! The idea was to do a project that explored the IoT as a creative inspiration and hint at how we could turn this into a network of sculptural embedded system objects to create a much more complex and interesting piece.

Coloured Lights

The network of embedded devices that communicate with each other create a generative sequence using a buzzer and mixing red, green and blue light.

What are your teaching goals with the project?

The students were nearing completion of a software based java project at the time, I wanted them to see how these skills could be applied to hardware by exploring microcontrollers, electronics, communication, IoT and the principles of using code creatively in a project. Ultimately I wanted them to come away with some key basic skills and the ability to find the information they needed to create a project like this for themselves.

How have students responded to it?

Response was great, with some students remarking they would like to do a whole module based on this sort of thing. Some found it tricky and some really flew with it, but I hope the resources I created and the format of the workshops enabled everyone to work at their own pace.

Did you face any unexpected challenges while undertaking it?

Perhaps not unexpected, but I always find working with serial communication throws up some problems! There are many communication protocols with call and response, start and end bits and error checking etc and creating one that is fit for purpose but does not look too scary for beginner coders can be a challenge. We worked out something very simple that seemed to work well, but we did have to tweak it along the way!

Tell us a bit about the technology you used?

The students had been working with java already so Arduino seemed like a good choice as it uses a flavour of java. I’m also a big fan of Arduino, it is very accessible, has a great deal of online resources and I think it is a terrific gateway into embedded system stuff. You can move on to using Atmel and other microcontroller chips in projects with much more specialised circuitry and lower power requirement and still stick with the Arduino environment you are used to. Xbee is based on Zigbee which is often used in IoT projects so I thought it would be good to explore and it offers an incredibly easy way to set up a network of devices without having to set up or join a network.

Coloured Lights

The completed network in action.

What is the role of IoT in education?

We are already seeing how IoT will be ubiquitous, and how that will represent new opportunities and indeed new challenges as the recent DDoS attack using IoT devices showed. IoT will be in every area of product design, fashion, the auto industry, healthcare, architecture, town planning, community governance etc and is inextricably linked to other emerging technologies. We need to be teaching young people about this technology and the fantastic possibilities and alarming dangers that it represents.

What skills do you think this project has taught students that they will be able to apply in the future?

I hope they have learnt some more about coding, something about electronics, microcontrollers, communication and data handling, but mostly I want them to have a grounding in how to learn things for themselves. The structure of the workshops was designed to teach core skills and techniques, signpost and promote the process of self-directed solutions as well as deeper thinking about the role of creativity in technology.

Do you have any plans to develop this project further. Any ideas for other projects?

I think this project would be great as a longer run of workshops or even a whole module, we were certainly short of time. The project is essentially based on ideas I have for an art installation so I would love to take it further in this direction and scale it up, possibly even communicating with other nodes internationally. It always comes down to world domination in the end!

Where you happy with the project? Would you do it again in class?

Yes, I was and would definitely do it again. As I said, it would have been great to have a bit more time, as we didn’t really get into the proper meat of the creative side of things. I felt the students were just at the point where they could go and do something really interesting with the skills they learnt and then we had to stop. But all in all, this project was a great way to teach them the basics and get them thinking creatively!